Arguments To Support Legalizing Marijuana are Stacking Up; The Government Hasn't Even Taken A Step
When an indoor public smoking ban took effect in the Netherlands in summer 2008, the worry wasn't so much for the one-third of Dutch adults who smoke cigarettes. Bars and restaurants went smoke-free without much problem.
A more intriguing concern was for the effect on the uniquely Dutch institution of marijuana-selling "coffee shops." If a place calls itself a coffee shop, that means three things: One, there is marijuana and hash for sale; two, for the price of a coffee, you may sit and smoke your own; and three, you will not be arrested.
The smoking ban does not apply to marijuana, but Dutch who smoke it almost always mix it with tobacco. So while the pot is still allowed, the tobacco in the joint isn't.
The Dutch classify marijuana as a "soft drug," which means that, like alcohol and tobacco, it is best regulated through controlled distribution. "Hard drugs," such as cocaine and heroin, remain illegal. But personal drug use is more a health matter than an arrestable offense.
Even the Amsterdam police want to keep the coffee shops open. "Why push drug use underground?" asked Christian Koers, the police chief responsible for Amsterdam's red-light district. "Then you cannot control it, and it becomes more popular and more dangerous. "
This idea - that drugs are both enjoyable and dangerous and thus better regulated than prohibited by government and sold by criminals - seems common-sense enough, even in America. Until now, the main opposition to a state's right to legalize marijuana has been the federal government. But recently, in a major policy shift, the U.S. Justice Department instructed federal prosecutors not to focus on "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."
In a memo explaining the new guidelines, Deputy Attorney General David Ogden emphasized that the department is not ending the war on drugs. But it's the first time the federal government has paused and taken a small step back. Though the change will affect few, at least in some states doctors and terminal cancer patients should no longer fear federal arrest.
Thirteen U.S. states have legalized medicinal marijuana, and Wisconsin recently jumped on the bandwagon. "It's pretty hard to say that a doctor actually thinks marijuana would be helpful and the doctor can't prescribe it, whereas ( he ) could prescribe morphine," said Gov. Jim Doyle. "We prescribe much more dangerous drugs."
Certainly, the legalization of medicinal marijuana has not always been an unalloyed success. But it is refreshing to see states and cities debating drug policy and regulation. And as that happens, we should notice how much easier it is to close a licensed store than an illegal drug corner.
Three years before I became a Baltimore police officer in 1999, I started my research with the Amsterdam police. The Dutch approach toward drugs, by and large, works. Without declaring a war, authorities there have managed to lower addiction rates, limit use and save lives. The United States, by contrast, spends $50 billion a year on its war on drugs and leads the world in drug use, with millions of Americans using marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy.
Clearly, what we're doing doesn't work.
The real drug problem, along with addictive heroin and crystal meth, is illegal public dealing. When a police car pulls up to a drug corner, the corner pulls back. Dealers, friends, addicts and lookouts walk away.
In Amsterdam, the red-light district is the oldest and most notorious neighborhood featuring alleys lined with legal prostitutes, bars, porn stores and coffee shops. In 2008, I visited the local police station and asked about the neighborhood's problems. I laughed when I heard that dealers of fake drugs were the biggest police issue.
The results are telling. In America, 37 percent of adults have tried marijuana; in the Netherlands the figure is 17 percent. Heroin usage rates are three times higher in the United States than in the Netherlands. Crystal meth, so destructive here, is almost nonexistent there. By any standard - drug usage rates, addiction, homicides, incarceration and dollars spent - America has lost the war on drugs.
And just as escalating the drug war in the past three decades hasn't caused a decrease in supply and demand, there's no reason to believe that regulating drugs instead of outlawing them would cause an increase. If it did, why are drug-usage rates in the Netherlands lower? People start and stop taking drugs for many reasons, but the law seems to be pretty low on the list.
Nobody wants a drug free-for-all; but, in fact, that's what we have in many communities. What we need is regulation. Distribution without regulation equals criminals and chaos - what police see every day. People will buy drugs because they want to get high, and the question is only how and where they will buy them.
History provides some lessons. The 21st Amendment ending Prohibition did not force anybody to drink or any city to license saloons. In 1933, after the failure to ban alcohol, the feds simply got out of the game. Today, they should do the same - and the Justice Department took that very small step in the right direction.
Leave It To States
Without federal control, states, cities and counties would be free to bar or regulate drugs as they saw fit. Just as with alcohol and tobacco regulation, one size does not fit all; we would see local solutions to local problems.
Even without federal pressure, most states and cities would undoubtedly start by maintaining the status quo against drugs. In these cases, police with or without federal assistance should focus on reducing violence by pushing the drug trade off the streets. An effort to shift the nature of the illegal trade is different than declaring a war on drugs.
Regulating and controlling distribution is far more effective at clearing the corners of drug dealers than any SWAT crackdown. One can easily imagine that in some cities - San Francisco, Portland and Seattle come to mind - alternatives to arrest and incarceration could be tried. They could learn from the experience of the Dutch, and we could all learn from their successes and failures.
Regulation is hard work, but it's not a war. And it sure beats herding junkies.
November 1, 2009
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On The Shelves, Off The Streets