Where Legalization Has Flourished, Drug Use Has IncreasedDr. Kevin SabetDrug Policy Consultant
Expert Verified | See Profile Recommend (4) Comments (5) “Do as the Dutch Do” -- this phrase has become a clarion call for legalization advocates, who fondly imagine a day when the world, or at least the U.S., treats marijuana the way the Dutch do. Almost every drug legalization discussion leads both sides of the debate focusing on drug policy in the Netherlands. It is fascinating that this tiny country of 16 million people is so often referenced in comparison to countries (like the U.S. or U.K.) with much larger populations. The reason, of course, for this often-used comparison is due to the fact that the Netherlands is one of the only places in the world where you can buy marijuana legally.
In 1976, as the counter-culture swept through much of the western world proclaiming free love and drugs (and as drug use was reaching historic levels in the United States), the Dutch approved a formal policy to allow the possession and sale of up to about ninety marijuana cigarettes (thirty grams). The government allowed “coffee-shops” selling marijuana to appear around the country and approved in 1980 guidelines allowing more local control discretion of commercial marijuana practices. As the Dutch got used to the idea of legal marijuana, coffee-shops popped up in nicer parts of town and the number of them grew eleven-fold in eight years (nine in 1980 and 102 by 1988) (Jansen 1991). Currently, a lower-end estimate numbers coffee-shops at about 1,500.
But not everyone has been pleased with the proliferation of coffee-shops in the Netherlands. Pressures from residents to reduce the noise associated with marijuana-vendors and patrons, and international bodies (like the International Narcotics Control Board, an arm of the United Nations) calling for less drug tourism and drug trafficking led the country in 1996 to tighten their regulations. Now coffee-shops are licensed and it is only legal to possess fifteen joints (five grams) at one time.
MacCoun and Reuter, two advocates of softer marijuana policies, point out that between 1976 and 1984, marijuana use rates remained about the same for adults and youth. Thus the effect of legalization (or, “depenalization” as they put it) was minimal. From the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, though, they observe that “surveys reveal that the lifetime prevalence of marijuana in Holland increased consistently and sharply.” They report 15 percent of 18-20 year olds used marijuana in their lifetime in 1984 turned into 44 percent by 1996 -- a 300 percent increase. Indeed, they also find cite past-month prevalence of 8.5 percent in 1984 to 18.5 percent in 1996
. Why would marijuana use suddenly increase in the mid-1980s, after remaining relatively flat for nearly the first ten years of lenient marijuana laws? MacCoun and Reuter point to “commercialization” as the culprit. That is, they contend that during this period between 1984 and 1996, the greater glamorization and more visible promotion of marijuana lead to an increase in use
. They claim that depenalization without commercialization does not increase use, as noted in steady use rates between 1976 and 1984 (MacCoun and Reuter 2001).......