The Dutch Approach to Marijuana
Amsterdam, Europe's counterculture mecca, thinks the concept of a "victimless crime" is a contradiction in terms. The city — and all of the Netherlands — is famous for its progressive attitude about marijuana. Regardless of your views, it's fascinating to try to understand the Dutch system that, in 1976, decriminalized the personal recreational use of pot. I travel to Amsterdam frequently, and on each visit, as a part of my guidebook research chores, I talk to various locals about marijuana — from the guys who run shops that sell pot, to pot-smokers and non-smokers, and to police officers who deal with drug problems face-to-face. Here's what I've learned.
First off, marijuana is not actually "legal" in the Netherlands — Dutch law still technically defines marijuana use as a crime (any country experimenting with treating drugs as a healthcare rather than a criminal issue knows it risks costly trade sanctions from the USA). But for more than 30 years, the nation's prosecutors have made it a policy not to enforce that law under their guiding principle of expediency: It makes no sense to enforce a law that is more trouble than it's worth.
The Dutch are justly famous for their practice of gedogen — toleration. They believe that as soon as you criminalize something, you lose any ability to regulate it. So they tolerate recreational pot smoking in order to regulate it (the same way we tolerate and regulate alcohol and tobacco). But Dutch tolerance has its limits. The moment you hurt or threaten someone else, it's no longer a "victimless crime" — and no longer tolerated. Dutch laws against driving under the influence — whether alcohol or marijuana — are extremely tough.
Throughout the Netherlands, you'll see "coffeeshops": pubs selling marijuana. The minimum age for purchase is 18, and coffeeshops can sell up to five grams of marijuana per person per day. As long as you're a paying customer (for instance, you buy a drink), you can pop into any coffeeshop and light up, even if you didn't buy your pot there.
Because of laws prohibiting the advertising of marijuana, the customer generally must take the initiative to get the menu. Locals buy marijuana by asking, "Can I see the cannabis menu?" In some places, there's a button you have to push and hold down to illuminate the otherwise-invisible list of creatively named strains of pot and hash.
The Netherlands' recent ban on public smoking (designed to protect workers from their customers' secondhand smoke) pertains to tobacco smoke, but not pot smoke. This matters in coffeeshops because Europeans generally mix their marijuana with tobacco. It might seem strange to an American, but if a Dutch coffeeshop is busted...it's because of tobacco. Shops have developed a kind of "herbal tea" mix as a tobacco substitute for joints. Coffeeshops with a few outdoor seats have a huge advantage, as their customers who prefer joints with a tobacco/marijuana mix can legally light up outside. But shops without the outdoor option have struggled.
Because pot is retailed much like beer or cigarettes, varieties evolve with demand. Several forms of the cannabis plant are sold. Locals smoke the pressed resin of the cannabis plant (hashish) and the buds and leaf of the plant (marijuana or grass). While each shop has different brands, all marijuana is either Indica or Sativa. Indica gets you a "stony, heavy, mellow, couch weed" high. Sativa is light, fun, uplifting, and more psychedelic — it makes you giggle.
Most of the marijuana you'll see these days is local. Growing technology has improved (allowing for more exotic local strains), and it's much safer to deal with Dutch plants than import marijuana from faraway lands. (International trafficking is a whole different legal complexity than growing and selling your own domestic strain.)
Pre-rolled joints are sold in three ways: pure; with the non-tobacco "hamburger helper" herbal mix; and rolled with tobacco. (Pure marijuana joints are easier to find now than before the tobacco smoking ban.) Some shops sell individual joints (averaging about $4 each). Others sell only small packs of three or four joints.
Shops also sell marijuana and hash in little baggies, which usually cost $15 to $20. Shops have loaner bongs and new-fangled inhalers for the health nuts. They dispense cigarette papers like toothpicks. Some shops sell bags in uniform weights, others in uniform prices. I'm told the better pot, with a higher price tag, is not necessarily more expensive — as it takes less to get high and gives you a better high.
Locals warn Americans — unaccustomed to the strength of the local stuff — to try a lighter leaf. In fact, they are generally very patient in explaining the varieties available. American tourists, giddy at the chance to smoke in public without the paranoia that comes with smoking back home, are notorious for overdoing it. When they call an ambulance, medics just say, unsympathetically, "Drink something sweet and walk it off."
The tax authorities don't want to see more than 500 grams (about a pound) on the books at the end of each accounting cycle. Being caught with too much inventory is one of the more common ways shops lose their license. A shop could retail a ton of pot with no problem, as long as it maintains that tiny stock and refills it as needed. This law is designed to keep shops small and prevent them from becoming bases for exportation — which would bring more international pressure on the Netherlands to crack down on its coffeeshop culture. (Amsterdam's mayor — understanding that this regulation just has the city busy with small-time deliveries — has proposed doubling the allowable inventory level to a kilo. Just the thought of a big city mayor grappling with a practical issue like this so pragmatically is striking.)
The wholesale dimension of the marijuana business is the famous gray area in the law. Rather than deal with that complex issue, Dutch lawmakers just left wholesaling out of the equation, taking the "don't ask, don't tell" route. Most shops get their inventory from the pot equivalent of home brewers or micro-brewers. Shops with better "boutique suppliers" get the reputation for having better-quality weed (and regularly win the annual Cannabis Cup trophy).
Everyone I've talked with in Amsterdam agrees that pot should never be bought on the street. Well-established coffeeshops are considered much safer, as coffeeshop owners have an incentive to keep their trade safe and healthy.
The Dutch are not necessarily "pro-marijuana." In fact, most have never tried it or even set foot in a coffeeshop. They just don't think the state has any business preventing the people who want it from getting it in a sensible way. To appease Dutch people who aren't comfortable with marijuana, an integral component of the coffeeshop system is discretion. It's bad form to smoke marijuana openly while walking down the street. Dutch people who don't like pot don't have to encounter or even smell it. And towns that don't want coffeeshops don't have them. Occasionally a coffeeshop license will not be renewed in a particular neighborhood, as the city wants to keep a broad smattering of shops (away from schools) rather than a big concentration in any one area.
Statistics support the Dutch belief that their more pragmatic system removes crime from the equation without unduly increasing consumption: After 30 years of handling marijuana this way, Dutch experts in the field of drug-abuse prevention agree that, while marijuana use has increased slightly, it has not increased more than in other Europeans countries where pot-smokers are being arrested (according to a 2005 study, 23 percent of Dutch people have used pot, compared to 23 percent of Germans and 30 percent of French). And for you nervous parents: The Dutch have seen no significant change in marijuana consumption among teens (who, according to both US and EU government statistics, smoke pot at half the US rate). Meanwhile, in the US, many teens report that it's easier for them to buy marijuana than tobacco or alcohol — because they don't get carded when buying something illegally.
It's interesting to compare European use to the situation back home, where marijuana laws are strictly enforced. According to Forbes Magazine, 25 million Americans currently use marijuana (federal statistics indicate that one in three Americans has used marijuana at some point), which makes it a $113 billion untaxed industry in our country. The FBI reports that about 40 percent of the roughly 1.8 million annual drug arrests in the US are for marijuana — the vast majority (89 percent) for simple possession...that means users, not dealers.
Many Dutch people believe that their pot policies have also contributed to the fact that they have fewer hard drug problems than other countries. The thinking goes like this: A certain segment of the population will experiment with drugs regardless. The coffeeshop scene allows this safely, with soft drugs. Police see the coffeeshops as a firewall separating soft drug use from hard drug abuse in their communities. If there is a dangerous chemical being pushed on the streets, for example, the police (with the help of coffeeshop proprietors) communicate to the drug-taking part of their society via the coffeeshops. When considering the so-called "gateway" effect of marijuana, the only change the police have seen in local heroin use is that the average age of a Dutch needle addict is getting older. In fact, the Dutch believe marijuana only acts as a "gateway" drug when it is illegal — because then, young people have no option but to buy it from pushers on the street, who have an economic incentive to get them hooked on more expensive and addictive hard drugs.
The hope and hunch is that people go through their drug-experimentation phase innocently with pot, and then the vast majority move on in life without getting sucked into harder, more dangerous drugs. Again, the numbers bear this out: Surveys show that more than three times as many Americans (1.4%) report to having tried heroin as Dutch people (0.4%).
Studying how the Dutch retail marijuana is interesting. It's also helpful because learning how another society confronts a persistent problem differently than we do can help us envision how we might deal with the same problem better. I agree with my Dutch friends, who remind me that a society has to make a choice: tolerate alternative lifestyles...or build more prisons. The Netherlands has made its choice. We're still building more prisons. (My Dutch friends needle me with the fact that only the USA and Russia lock up more than one percent of their citizens, while the average per capita incarceration rate in Europe is only a tenth the US rate.) I also agree with New York Mayor LaGuardia. Way back in the 1930s, when it was becoming clear that America's Prohibition on alcohol wasn't working, LaGuardia said that if a society has a law on the books that it doesn't intend to enforce, it erodes respect for all laws in general.
While the Dutch are famously lenient in their marijuana laws, many other European countries are also progressive on this issue. I've chatted with people passing a joint as they played backgammon in the shadow of the cathedral in Bern. They told me that marijuana enforcement is stricter in Switzerland each spring at the start of the travel season, so the country doesn't become a magnet for the backpacking pot-smoker crowd (an admitted drawback to the Dutch system). I've talked with twentysomethings in Copenhagen rolling a joint on the steps of their city hall, who say they have to be a little careful because the Danes are required to arrest a couple of pot-smokers each year in order to maintain favored trade status with the USA.