My Take on Drug-Policy Reform

By Rick Steves

Because of my travels, I find myself one of the most high-profile people in the country advocating the reform of our nation’s marijuana laws. I’ve produced a TV show on the topic with the ACLU, and have been a board member of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, since 2003. But I am certainly not “pro-drugs.” I simply appreciate how much of Europe treats its drug problems in a pragmatic way, with success measured by harm reduction rather than incarceration. While in the US 80,000 people are in jail for marijuana charges, in parts of Europe discreetly smoking a joint is just another form of relaxation.

I speak out on this issue, in part, because most Americans cannot — out of fear of losing their job or reputation or both. Of the countless good causes to get involved in, drug policy reform is a high-risk choice. When I’m interviewed about this on TV or radio, journalists ask me all the predictable questions…and then, as soon as the mic is off, they say, “Thanks for having the courage to speak out.” My first thought is that if it seems courageous to challenge a law one believes is wrong, that is, in itself, reason to speak out. Since I own my own business, I can’t get fired…and so, when it comes to America’s prohibition on marijuana, I can consider lessons learned from my travels and say what I really believe when I’m back home.

Excerpted from Travel as a Political Act

Europe: Not "Hard on Drugs" or "Soft on Drugs"...but Smart on Drugs.

The US and Europe: Two Different Approaches to Drug Abuse

There's no doubt that the abuse of drugs—whether "soft drugs" (such as marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco), or "hard drugs" (including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines)—is horrible and destroys lives. Since the 1970s, the US's approach has been (with the exception of alcohol and tobacco) to declare a "war on drugs." In contrast, Europe has attempted a wide range of solutions to the same problem. And, while Europe certainly doesn't have all the answers, their results have been compelling. I’ve traveled with an appetite for learning why Europe has fewer drug-related deaths, less drug-related incarceration, and less drug consumption per capita than we do here in America. (I have to admit that as I reviewed the numbers to back up my claims for this chapter, I discovered one irrefutable fact: Statistics on drug use and abuse are all over the map. While most of the empirical studies reinforce my conclusions, conflicting data always seem to emerge. I assume this is because most sources have an agenda—pro or con—which skews their findings.)

To be clear, there is no Europe-wide agreement on drug policy. Some countries—including the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Switzerland—categorize marijuana as a soft drug (similar to alcohol and tobacco). Others—including Sweden and Greece—strictly enforce laws against both marijuana and hard drugs (in fact, drug-related arrests are on the rise in some countries). But what most European countries have in common is an emphasis on education and prevention. They believe that, by handling drug abuse more as a public health problem than as a criminal one, they are better able to reduce the harm it causes—both to the individual (health problems and antisocial behavior) and to society (healthcare costs, policing costs, and drug-related crime).

Generally, Europeans employ a three-pronged strategy for dealing with hard drugs: law enforcement, education, and healthcare. Police zero in on dealers—not users—to limit the supply of drugs. Users generally get off with a warning and are directed to get treatment; any legal action respects the principle of proportionality. Anti-drug education programs work hard to warn people (particularly teenagers) of the dangers of drugs. And finally, the medical community steps in to battle health problems associated with drug use (especially HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C) and to help addicts reclaim their lives.

When it comes to soft drugs, policies in much of Europe are also more creative and pragmatic than America’s. We'll get into an illuminating case study (the Netherlands) later in this chapter.

I’m not saying Europe always gets it right. They have employed some silly tactics in efforts to curb marijuana use. For example, a study in France showed that boys smoke more pot than girls, which they attributed to boys being nervous about approaching girls socially. So they literally gave boys government-funded training in flirting. While this notion seems ridiculous, you have to admit it's refreshing to see legislators thinking "outside the box." Even if some of their ideas fail, others turn out to be brilliant.

Meanwhile, the US seems afraid to grapple with this problem openly and creatively. Rather than acting as a deterrent, the US criminalization of marijuana drains precious resources, clogs our legal system, and distracts law enforcement attention from more pressing safety concerns. Of the many billions of tax dollars we invest annually fighting our war on drugs, more than two-thirds is spent on police, courts, and prisons. Meanwhile, European nations—seeking a cure that isn't more costly than the problem itself—spend a much larger portion of its drug policy funds on doctors, counselors, and clinics. According to the EU website, European policymakers estimate that they save 15 euros in police and healthcare costs for each euro invested in drug education, addiction prevention, and counseling.

Like Europe, the US should be open to new solutions. It's out of character for a nation so famous for its ingenuity to simply label the drug problem a "war" and bring in the artillery. Europeans make a strong case that approaching drug abuse from the perspective of harm reduction can be very effective.

And so, to find inspiration, let's take a closer look at how two European countries deal with drug use: The famously tolerant Dutch stance on the soft drug of marijuana, and the pragmatic Swiss approach to the hard drug of heroin.

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.

In an Amsterdam "coffeeshop," you won't find coffee.

Essentially legal since 1976, an impressive variety of marijuana joints fills the sales racks in Dutch coffeeshops.

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’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. 

The Prohibition of Our Age

Rick Steves at Hempfest in Seattle
At Seattle's Hempfest, 80,000 people call for an end to America's prohibition on marijuana. On the main stage, I talk up Europe's more pragmatic approach to drug abuse.

Travel teaches us a respect for history. And when it comes to drug policy, I hope we can learn from our own prohibitionist past. Back in the 1920s, America’s biggest drug problem was alcohol. To combat it, we made booze illegal and instituted Prohibition. By any sober assessment, all that Prohibition produced was grief. By criminalizing a soft drug that people refused to stop enjoying, Prohibition created the mob (Al Capone and company), filled our prisons, and cost our society a lot of money. It was big government at its worst. Finally, courageous citizens stood up and said the laws against alcohol were causing more problems than the alcohol itself. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, nobody was saying “booze is good.” Society just realized that the laws were counterproductive and impossible to enforce. In our own age, many lawyers, police officers, judges, and other concerned citizens are coming to the same conclusion about the current US government-sponsored prohibition against marijuana.

The Swiss Approach to Hard Drugs

Marijuana is one thing. But hard drugs—such as heroin—are another. And, even as some European countries are liberalizing their approach to pot, they draw a clear distinction between "soft" and "hard" drugs. Hard drug abuse—with an estimated two million problem users—is a concern in Europe, just as it is in the US. There is no easy solution. But the pragmatic European approach—based on harm reduction rather than punishment for an immoral act—appears to have had some success. Switzerland has been at the forefront of these efforts.

If you don't want junkies shooting up in your toilet, just put in blue lights.

Swiss machines that once sold cigarettes now sell government-subsidized syringes. When it comes to needles in Switzerland, no one shares.

Dutch cops, happy to ignore pot smokers, measure the effectiveness of their society's drug policy in terms of harm reduction.

The last time I was in Switzerland, I dropped into a Starbucks in downtown Zürich, went downstairs into the bathroom...and it was all blue. I had stumbled into another example of a creative European drug policy. The Swiss, who don't want their junkies shooting up in public bathrooms, install blue lights. I couldn't see my couldn't shoot up if you wanted to.

Of course, this minor frustration wouldn't stop junkies from finding a fix. Across the street is a machine that once sold cigarettes. Now it sells hygienic, government-subsidized syringes—three for two francs, about a buck apiece. The Swiss recognize that heroin doesn't spread HIV/AIDS or other deadly diseases. Dirty needles do. 

If addicts need more than just sterile needles, they know they can go down the street to a heroin-maintenance clinic for their fix. Rather than steal (or worse) to finance their addiction, they get the services of a nurse and a counselor. Swiss society is working to help addicts stay alive, get off of welfare, and rejoin the workforce. Clinic workers told me that in Switzerland, crime and AIDS cases related to heroin use have decreased, while recovery and employment rates among their clients have increased.

When addicts aren’t nervous about where they’ll get their next fix, consumption goes down (as do overdoses). When demand on the streets goes down, so does the price. This brings down street violence...and is bad news for a pusher's bottom line. With clean needles and a source providing reliable purity, potency, and quantity, maintaining the addiction becomes less dangerous. With these provisions, you still have an addict—but you remove crime, violence, money, and disease from the equation, so you can treat it as what it is: a health problem for mixed-up people who are screwing up their lives and need help. As Swiss addicts are safely dosed to maintenance levels, they begin to reclaim their lives, get jobs, pay taxes, and—in many cases—kick their habit altogether. Switzerland’s heroin maintenance centers (now also in Germany and the Netherlands) succeed in reducing the harm caused by drug abuse. 

While heroin-maintenance programs seem to be relatively successful, Europeans have tried and failed with other programs. For instance, experimental “needle parks” (places where the hard drug-taking community could gather), which ended up attracting junkies and creating a public nuisance, were abandoned for the more low-key maintenance centers. But at least Europeans are dealing with the challenge openly, creatively, and compassionately.  

In contrast, some observers suggest that the US's more punitive policies towards addicts cause "junkification": they marginalize the addict and drive them to dangerous, predatory behaviors—from simple stealing, to mugging, to prostitution, to selling drugs to others. In other words, if you treat heroin addicts like they're dangerous junkies...that's exactly what they'll become.

The casual American observer who sees more junkies on the streets of Europe than in the USA may conclude they have a bigger drug problem because of their more lenient drug policies. In fact, according to the 2007 UN World Drug Report, the percentage of Europeans who use illicit drugs is about half that of Americans. The difference is that theirs are out and about while working with these centers and trying to get their lives back on track. Ours are more often either dead or in jail. Through its busy maintenance centers, Switzerland has provided literally millions of heroin fixes, and they’ve not had a single overdose death. Overall the USA loses roughly 18,000 people a year to hard drug overdoses, and Europe (with a much larger population) loses about 8,000.

Like my European friends, I believe we can adopt a pragmatic policy toward both marijuana and hard drugs, with a focus on harm reduction and public health, rather than tough-talking but counterproductive criminalization. The time has come to have an honest discussion about our drug laws and their effectiveness. When it comes to drug policy, you can be soft, hard...or smart.