Background: This research examined the prevalence of drinking and cannabis use among adolescents in the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands, countries with substantially different laws and policies relating to these substances.
Methods: Laws regarding drinking and cannabis use were rated for each country. Substance use prevalence data among 10th graders from the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Survey conducted in each country in 2005-2006 were examined.
Results: Laws regarding alcohol and cannabis were found to be strictest in the United States, somewhat less strict in Canada, and least strict in the Netherlands. On most measures of drinking, rates were lower in the United States than in Canada or the Netherlands. With United States as the referent, relative risks (RR) for monthly drinking were 1.30 (1.11-1.53) for Canadian boys and 1.55 (1.31-1.83) for girls, and 2.0 (1.73-2.31) for Dutch boys and 1.92 (1.62-2.27) for Dutch girls. Drunkenness was also higher among Canadian boys and girls and Dutch boys. However, rates of cannabis use did not differ between the countries, except that Dutch girls were less likely to use cannabis in the past year (RR=.67; .46-.96).
Conclusions: The lower prevalence of adolescent drinking and drunkenness (except among Dutch girls) in the United States is consistent with the contention that strict drinking policies may limit drinking among 10th graders. However, the finding that cannabis use rates did not differ across countries is not consistent with the contention that prohibition-oriented policies deter use or that liberal cannabis policies are associated with elevated adolescent use. Based on these findings, the case for strict laws and policies is considerably weaker for cannabis than for alcohol.