Since the 1970s, the Dutch have been famous among backpacking tourists, public health officials and drug-use researchers for their unusual national stance toward marijuana. Technically, the drug is illegal in the Netherlands. But the country has an official policy of non-enforcement, and you can buy the stuff — no more than 5 grams at a time — in hundreds of cannabis coffee shops.
This approach — somewhere in between all-out prohibition and free-market legalization — is like no other policy in Western Europe, or in the United States for that matter. But research reveals a surprising fact about Dutch tokers: The country's drug policy may be remarkable, but very little about its users is.
"If you looked at all the data points in this paper, you wouldn't be able to tell which ones were the Dutch," said Robert MacCoun, a professor of public policy and law at the University of California, Berkeley, who has reported new findings in the journal Addiction. "The Dutch data are right in the middle of the distribution. There's just nothing particularly distinctive about drug use in the Netherlands, which is interesting simply because many people assume that Dutch drug use must be out of control. And it's not."
Not only is it not out of control, but people who smoke pot in the Netherlands are less likely to escalate their use — into a heavier habit or harder drugs — than they are in the U.S., and they tend to mature out of marijuana faster than American users do.
This evidence suggests an intriguing alternative path for U.S. policy. Dutch officials condoned cannabis coffee shops on the theory that they would help "separate the market" between marijuana and harder drugs. Give people a place to legally buy pot in limited quantities, officials figured, and they won't have to go to a shady street corner where sellers are also pushing cocaine or heroin.
"What I see in the data is support for the idea that that actually worked," MacCoun said. (Although it may soon only work for Dutch nationals. This spring the government proposed cutting out the drug tourism industry by converting coffee shops into private clubs for citizens only.) The coffee shops may have modestly increased marijuana use in the Netherlands, even as MacCoun's research suggests that use doesn't necessarily lead to more serious public health challenges. Use has slightly risen and fallen over time alongside the prevalence of retail outlets. Since the mid-1990s, the number of shops has dropped by about 40 percent, to around 700 now (or 1 per every 3,000 citizens in heavily concentrated Amsterdam). Since 1997, officials have been stricter in shutting down shops that violate basic requirements. They can't allow in children under 18, they can't sell any other drugs, and they can't advertise marijuana. (But having Bob Marley on your sign is OK.)
This last requirement is a key one: You can buy pot in the Netherlands, but you won't see billboards or bus advertisements suggesting you run right out and do this. And this may be one of the complications of testing such a quasi-legal policy in the U.S., where First Amendment protections for commercial speech are much stronger than they are in most countries. Once a product is legal here, it's hard to curtail what companies can say about it (a lesson the government is currently learning with tobacco companies).
"But mostly I think we can't afford to ignore lessons form abroad," MacCoun said. "We can't afford to be provincial about this because we'll never learn anything about how to make better policy unless we actually study countries that are trying different things."
MacCoun has followed Dutch drug policy in his research for more than a decade. But comparable data on drug use, enforcement and treatment in other European countries is now making it possible for the first time compare Dutch outcomes not just with the United States, but also with the country's immediate (and more culturally similar) neighbors.
This latest data supports a theme MacCoun's work has long highlighted: the potential for middle-ground drug-policy solutions that toe the line between legalization and enforced prohibition. Current discussion in the U.S., though, seldom strays from that dichotomy.
"I do think the debate has gotten unhelpfully polarized so that any talk about criticizing current policies is seen as an automatic endorsement of going to the opposite extreme, of going to the free-market, libertarian model," he said. Where middle-ground alternatives like needle exchange come up, they're often criticized as a Trojan horse for eventual legalization. "That's a really unhelpful way to categorize it," MacCoun said.
"There's a whole range of things you could do in between those two extremes."