Listen to a debate among drug policy advocates and you’re likely to hear impassioned claims about the brilliant success (or dismal failure) of more “liberal” approaches in certain European countries. Frequently, however, such claims are based on false assumptions. For example, we are told that marijuana has been legalized in the Netherlands. Or that addicts receive heroin by prescription in Great Britain.
Pruned of erroneous or excessive claims, the experience in Europe points to both the feasibility of successful reform of US drug laws and the drawbacks of radical change. What follows are descriptions of some innovative approaches being tried over there, with judgements of their applicability over here. They fall into three broad categories: eliminating user sanctions (decriminalization), allowing commercial sales (legalization) and medical provision of heroin to addicts (maintenance).
The Case of the Dutch Coffee Shops
Dutch cannabis policy and its effects are routinely mischaracterized by both sides in the US drug debate. Much of the confusion hinges on a failure to distinguish between two very different eras in Dutch policy. In compliance with international treaty obligations, Dutch law states unequivocally that cannabis is illegal. Yet in 1976 the Dutch adopted a formal written policy of nonenforcement for violations involving possession or sale of up to thirty grams (five grams since 1995) of cannabis–a sizable quantity, since one gram is sufficient for two joints. Police and prosecutors were forbidden to act against users, and officials adopted a set of rules that effectively allowed the technically illicit sale of small amounts in licensed coffee shops and nightclubs. The Dutch implemented this system to avoid excessive punishment of casual users and to weaken the link between the soft and hard drug markets; the coffee shops would allow marijuana users to avoid street dealers, who may also traffic in other drugs. Despite some recent tightenings in response to domestic and international pressure (particularly from the hard-line French), the Dutch have shown little intention of abandoning their course.
In the initial decriminalization phase, which lasted from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, marijuana was not very accessible, sold in a few out-of-the-way places. Surveys show no increase in the number of Dutch marijuana smokers from 1976 to about 1984. Likewise, in the United States during the seventies, twelve US states removed criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and studies indicate that this change had at most a very limited effect on the number of users. More recent evidence from South Australia suggests the same.
From the mid-eighties Dutch policy evolved from the simple decriminalization of cannabis to the active commercialization of it. Between 1980 and 1988, the number of coffee shops selling cannabis in Amsterdam increased tenfold; the shops spread to more prominent and accessible locations in the central city and began to promote the drug more openly. Today, somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 coffee shops (about one per 12,000 inhabitants) sell cannabis products in the Netherlands; much of their business involves tourists. Coffee shops account for perhaps a third of all cannabis purchases among minors and supply most of the adult market.