Cannabis in the City

Bottom-up policy reform for cannabis regulation
20 March 2019
Policy briefing

In order to better understand the situation around, and possibilities for, local and regional cannabis regulation, a series of six country reports were developed. The country reports provide detailed information about the state of cannabis policy, and the possibilities for change, within each country. This briefing identifies some of the key findings and implications for policy makers and advocates from this research.

Key Points:

  • As governments worldwide explore new cannabis policies, the discussion of recreational cannabis regulation at the national level within Europe is in a deadlock in most countries.

  • National governments in Europe are bound by international obligations – the United Nations (UN) drug-control conventions and European Union (EU) legislation – which limit their room for manoeuvre, particularly regarding the supply of (non-medicinal) cannabis.

  • A study of six European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland) revealed a great diversity of initiatives at the municipal and regional level, responding to the ‘deadlock’ in recreational cannabis regulation.

  • Cities bear substantial costs of prohibitionist drug policy, and have the capacity to act as ‘laboratories’ for innovative policies (as they did, for instance, in the development of harm- reduction policies in the 1990s), but this will require new legislation that national governments are reluctant or unable to enact.

  • Since the late 1960s, and in the face of the impossibility of eradicating cannabis use, a certain leniency towards the drug and a tendency to distinguish between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs have developed in Europe. The six countries studied have engaged in so-called ‘soft defections’ from the prohibitionist regime, but the supply of cannabis has remained strictly prohibited.

  • In practice, it is often left to local authorities to manage ‘grey zones’ resulting from soft defections and gaps in government policy.

  • Several cities and regional authorities are looking for opportunities to regulate cannabis. Sub- national authorities in northern European countries are moving towards experiments or pilot projects with regulated recreational cannabis markets, with different levels of success.

  • The point of departure for regulating the recreational cannabis markets is different in the six countries examined. The Netherlands and Spain have dispensary systems on which regulation might be built. In other countries, local authorities have to start from scratch.

  • Local customisation and Multi-Level Governance (MLG) may provide policy frameworks for national EU-level policy makers to better incorporate the demands of local authorities, and support the development of more locally adapted drug policies, while preserving the benefits of European-level cooperation on key issues.

Produced as part of a the "New Approaches in Harm Reduction Policies and Practices" project.

This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. The publications reflect the views only of the authors, and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.