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Lessons from the Netherlands for Marijuana Legalization in the US

By Phillip Smith July 19, 2013 Lessons from the Netherlands for Marijuana Legalization in the US
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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.

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  • HumphreyPloughjogger

    Same rules that apply to the cultivation and commerce in herbs, every state has them, are sufficiently comprehensive to regulate adult conduct.

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  • David Daniel

    I find no signifigance in learning lessons for legalization from a country that actually has never legalized it.

    • Dave

      Well then you won’t have much knowledge to draw upon then because only one country ever has legalized it — and they’ve just started! Meanwhile the Netherlands’ experience with de facto legalization and the resulting impact on hard drug use are IMO extremely instructive.

      • David Daniel

        Your vaguely right. However my point remains, the Netherlands has not legalized it. They have not created the vast system of business, legal and monetary banking and tax interactions necessary to formulate a true model of cannabis legalization in ANY US State. What is offered within this article are merely tangenital side effects, while worth noting are not and have not been successful in promoting legalization. Yes harm reduction is benefitial yet it lends nothing to the objective of legalized and regulated cannabis and its impact on economics and revenue in the halls of politics which is the TRUE crux of legalization. If memory serves me the Netherlands has even on occassion poisoned the well so to speak when it comes to tourism and cannabis. And take note that I made my statement months ago prior to any widespread news of Uruguayan legalization which is now at least a worthy model yet it comes too late for this discussion as of two days ago. THE model of cannabis legalization and regulation for the western world IS Colorado and Washington. Places that have surpassed the Netherlands small scale “practical” treatment of cannabis and will certainly out strip it in terms of tourism, production, revenue and oh yes, discerning the ten thousand minutae actually required to create an actual model to be used as a reference point for other States. I still find the Netherlands to be woefully insufficient source for data points on this issue. Colorado and shortly Washington are and will be the model actual legalization. Not de facto whatever tolerance which is merely summed up as policemen ignoring users with their five grams and store fronts as they restock through the day.

        • Dave

          I agree with you that Colorado and Washington are the models for legalization in the Western world, and Uruguay too although their model is unimplemented and still fuzzy. But CO and WA have only just legalized, and WA still doesn’t have legal sales. And the question that we cannot answer by looking at those those states is what the long term affect on society will be. However, looking at the Netherlands fills in a lot of those gaps because even though their model is quite different they have still decades of experience with it. The facts that they use MJ at significantly lower rates than the US and that they have the lowest rate of problem drug use in Europe are especially informative in my view. And while you may think that the impact on the economy and on revenues are the most important factors in support of MJ legalization, I personally support it because of the reduction of harm that will ensue. Harm reduction is also the reason that the Dutch have adopted their policy of tolerance, and in fact the ‘drug tourism’ that has resulted from their policy is viewed as by them an annoyance.

  • Dave

    I heart Amsterdam!