The retail market for cannabis (EU Drug Markets Report)

The retail market for cannabis

Cannabis is the most frequently used illicit drug in Europe, so it is unsurprising that it is also the one considered most easily accessible, with the number of young people reporting that they could easily obtain some within 24 hours being more than double the number claiming ready access to any other illicit substance (TNS Political & Social, 2014). However, not all cannabis consumed is purchased, as people may grow it for themselves, and not all cannabis purchased is for own-use, as it is often shared among groups of friends. For example, in a survey of cannabis users in seven European countries (van Laar et al., 2013), nearly two-thirds of respondents said that they mainly bought the cannabis they used, but over one-quarter said that the cannabis they used was given to them for free, 7 % reported growing it and 3 % obtained it in some other way. There was considerable variation between countries, however.

Only limited information is available on how the retail market operates, although local studies show that different types of market are associated with different levels of risk to purchasers and dealers. There is considerable variation between countries in how the retail cannabis markets function, which may be a result of legislative differences, for example in the Netherlands coffee shops are allowed to sell cannabis and in other countries cannabis clubs are permitted, or of cultural differences or the maturity of the market. This is illustrated by the study mentioned above, which found that the vast majority of users in the Netherlands (87 %) usually purchase their cannabis from a coffee shop, a possibility not available in other countries. In Bulgaria, most people (58 %) reported buying their cannabis on the street or in a park, whereas purchasing at the seller’s or someone else’s home was the most common response among respondents in the remaining five countries where the survey was administered (the Czech Republic, Italy, Sweden, England and Wales, and Portugal), suggesting more closed markets in these countries. The data from the study also suggest that the market for cannabis at the retail level in most of the countries in the study is quite specialised, as in five of the seven countries the number of respondents who said that other drugs were available where they usually bought cannabis was less than one- third. This separation of the markets was greatest in the Netherlands, where most people buy their cannabis from coffee shops, indicating that the policy was achieving one of its key aims. The highest levels of market overlap were seen in Sweden (52 %) and Bulgaria (49 %).

Technological developments, such as the internet and the spread of mobile phones, also play a part in the cannabis market. As discussed in Chapter 2, the internet is an area of growing concern with respect to drug markets generally, although most surveys find that internet purchase of cannabis is not commonly reported. Nevertheless, in the Global Drug Survey (Winstock, 2015), cannabis was mentioned as one of the substances purchased through dark net markets, and a recent study of dark net drug markets found that cannabis accounted for a significant proportion of drug sales volumes, probably about a quarter (Soska and Christin, 2015). The use of mobile phones to arrange drug deals appears to be of increasing significance in many countries, facilitating either home deliveries or constantly changing meeting places for the exchange of drugs. This reduces the risk of detection by law enforcement.

The reported prices of cannabis resin and herb, where available, are quite similar and have been essentially stable in recent years. In 2014, the interquartile range (IQR) of the price of cannabis resin was EUR 9–12 per gram, while that of herb was EUR 7–11 per gram (Table 3.1). However, prices need to be considered in terms of the potency of the substances purchased as well as the quantity typically used at any one time. The price of both types of cannabis has increased in recent years, but not to the same extent as potency appears to have increased (Figure 3.6). Reported average potency (measured in terms of the percentage of THC) in 2014 tended to be slightly higher for resin than for herb. The IQR of the potency of resin was 12–18 % while that of herb was 8–12 % (Table 3.1). The potency of both types has roughly doubled since 2006 (EMCDDA, 2015b).

Figure 3.6

Trends in cannabis potency and retail price in the EU, 2010–14 

Note: Trends are based only on data from those EU countries that have submitted data consistently since 2010. Prices have not been adjusted for inflation. Typical values shown are the interquartile range (IQR) of the country average values, with high and low values showing the range. 

Source: EMCDDA/Reitox national focal points. 

Short title: 
Retail market