Does cannabis decriminalization work?
Decriminalization of certain drug offenses is one of the goals of a loosely organized movement called harm reduction. While it neither ignores the dangers of addictive drugs, nor advocates their use, harm reduction, as practiced by organizations like the Harm Reduction Coalition, is a limited step that calls for making distinctions between major and minor classes of drug crimes. Above all, it is a practical approach.
According to the International Harm Reduction Association: “In many countries with zero tolerance drug policies, funding for drug law enforcement is five to six times greater than funding for prevention and treatment.” In place of that scenario, harm reduction strategies aim for the creation of non-coercive, community-based recovery programs and resources for drug users. The association defines harm reduction as follows: “Policies and programs which attempt primarily to reduce the adverse health, social, and economic consequences of mood altering substances to individual drug users, their families and their communities.”
Harm reduction strategies do not call upon the government to eradicate the drug problem. Nor would they ultimately lead to cocaine and heroin being sold in government-owned versions of mom-and-pop drugstores. It calls for judgment and discrimination on the part of law enforcement agencies, judges, juries, lawyers, and everyday citizens. The controversial Dutch experiment with harm reduction is often the focal point of such discussions. In 1976, the Dutch made a misdemeanor out of the sale of up to one ounce of cannabis. In the Netherlands, possession of marijuana and heroin is illegal, but there are certain well-defined exceptions, such as the Amsterdam coffee houses, where marijuana and hashish may be freely purchased and consumed. The coffee houses pay taxes on their marijuana sales, just as they do with sales of beer.
The price of marijuana and hashish available in the shops is reasonably low, which cuts back on the need to commit crimes in order to pay for it, and lowers the profits available to street dealers. “If we kept chasing grass or hashish, the dealers would go underground, and that would be dangerous,” a senior Dutch police officer told The Economist (sub. required).
The Dutch officer insisted that the Dutch do not intend to reverse course, as happened in Alaska. “The Americans offer us big money to fight the war on drugs their way. We do not say that our way is right for them, but we are sure it is right for us. We don’t want their help.”
Dutch police still possess strong enforcement powers when it comes to hard drugs, but they have been instructed to view the issue as a public health problem. Heroin addicts are tolerated, but steered in the direction of treatment. By some accounts, 75 per cent of Dutch heroin addicts are involved in one treatment program or another. Local officials complain that some of their drug problem can be traced to a flood of young people coming in from other countries where stricter drug laws are in force.
The Dutch experiment rests on the belief that drug addiction is a medical problem, and that medical problems cannot be solved within the structure of the criminal justice system. “The lifetime prevalence of cannabis use in the Netherlands for 10- to 18-year-olds is 4.2 per cent,” Science (sub. required) reported, “compared with the U.S. High School Survey figure of approximately 30 per cent.”