Lessons from the Netherlands for Marijuana Legalization in the US

AMSTERDAM — The US states of Colorado and Washington voted last year to legalize marijuana and are moving forward toward implementing legalization. Activists in several states are lining up to try to do the same next year, and an even bigger push will happen in 2016.

With public opinion polls now consistently showing support for pot legalization at or above 50%, it appears that nearly a century of marijuana prohibition in the US is coming to an end.

Exactly how it comes to an end and what will replace it are increasingly important questions as we move from dreaming of legalization to actually making it happen. The Netherlands, which for decades now has allowed open marijuana consumption and sales at its famous coffee shops, provides some salutary lessons — if reformers, state officials, and politicians are willing to heed them.

To be clear, the Dutch have not legalized marijuana. The marijuana laws remain on the books, but are essentially overridden by the Dutch policy of “pragmatic tolerance,” at least as far as possession and regulated sales are concerned. Cultivation is a different matter, and that has proven the Achilles Heel of Dutch pot policy. Holland’s failure to allow for a system of legal supply for the coffee shops leaves shop owners to deal with illegal marijuana suppliers — the “backdoor problem” — and leaves the system open to charges it is facilitating criminality by buying product from criminal syndicates.

A coffee shop in Amsterdam, where clients can sit and smoke. Why no on-premises consumption here? (wikimedia.org)

A coffee shop in Amsterdam, where clients can sit and smoke. Why no on-premises consumption here? (wikimedia.org)

Still, even though the Dutch system is not legalization de jure and does not create a complete legal system of marijuana commerce, reformers and policymakers here can build on the lessons of the Dutch experience as we move toward making legal marijuana work in the US.

“Governments are looking to reform their drug policies in order to maximize resources, promote health and security while protecting people from damaging and unwarranted arrests,” said Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, Director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program. “The Netherlands has been a leader in this respect. As other countries and local jurisdictions consider reforming their laws, it’s possible that the Netherlands’ past offers a guide for the future.”

A new report from the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program lays out what Dutch policymakers have done and how they have fared. Authored by social scientists Jean-Paul Grund and Joost Breeksema of the Addiction Research Center in Utrecht, the report, Coffee Shops and Compromise: Separated Illicit Drug Markets in the Netherlands tells the history of the Dutch approach and describes the ongoing success of the country’s drug policy.

This includes the separation of the more prevalent marijuana market from hard drug dealers. In the Netherlands, only 14% of cannabis users say they can get other drugs from their sources for cannabis. By contrast in Sweden, for example, 52% of cannabis users report that other drugs are available from cannabis dealers. That separation of hard and soft drug markets has limited Dutch exposure to drugs like heroin and crack cocaine and led to Holland having the lowest number of problem drug users in the European Union, the report found.

Pragmatic Dutch drug policies have not been limited to marijuana. The Netherlands has been a pioneer in harm reduction measures, such as needle exchanges and safe consumption sites, has made drug treatment easy to access, and has decriminalized the possession of small quantities of all drugs. As a result, in addition to having the lowest number of problem drug users, Holland has virtually wiped out new HIV infections among injection drug users. And, because of decriminalization, Dutch citizens have been spared the burden of criminal records for low-level, nonviolent offenses.

The Dutch have, for example, virtually eliminated marijuana possession arrests. According to figures cited in the report, in a typical recent year, Dutch police arrested people for pot at a rate of 19 per 100,0000, while rates in the US and other European countries were 10 times that or more.

For veteran drug reform activist Joep Oomen of the European NGO Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), the report is welcome but not exactly “stop the presses” news.

“The conclusions of this report have been known for a long time,” he told the Drug War Chronicle. “Already by the end of the 1990s, when European governments had to acknowledge that Dutch drug policies had proven more effective in reducing risks and harms than many other countries, the criticism that had been expressed earlier by mainly German and French heads of state was silenced. For instance, in the Netherlands the age of first heroin use is the highest of Europe, which is explained by the relative tolerance concerning cannabis use.”

Lessons from the Netherlands for Marijuana Legalization in the US was written by and appears in full on The Daily Chronic.

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