Low rates of use in the Netherlands demonstrate that the best way to assure teens will try marijuana is to tell them it's illegal
It's official: the Dutch have managed to make pot smoking uncool. The Dutch don't smoke nearly as much cannabis as Canadians, which is surprising because cannabis use is legal in the Netherlands. What can we learn from this?
Cannabis is not taboo, as it is in North America, under prohibition. That could be why there is no real attraction for Dutch youth to take up the practice. UN statistics tell it like it is: 16.8 per cent of adult Canadians have tried cannabis, yet only 6.1 per cent of Dutch have (2007 World Drug Report, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). Yet cannabis is legally available in one of 280 licensed coffeeshops in the Netherlands. Obviously, there is no connection between availability and higher consumption rates.
Despite the lower rates of use among adults, and despite the fact that Dutch teens try cannabis at much lower rates than North Americans, the coffeeshops are constantly threatened with closure. That's because the drug warrior mentality has spread like fundamentalist wildfire across the globe.
I met a few folks on a recent trip to Amsterdam, and of those who grew up there, many said that they had not been interested in cannabis as teens. Most didn't even try it until they were adults -- that's very different from the Great White North. When teens in Amsterdam think of pot smoking, they think of the chronically bewildered tourists they have to look out for while cycling downtown. For many, smoking pot is just not that much fun if there aren't any laws being broken.
Although the Dutch system of cannabis regulation works pretty well, there is constant pressure from conservatives both at home and internationally to shut down the coffeeshops.
The legislation to legalize soft drugs came about almost inadvertently 30 years ago, and a formal supply system was never put in place. The marketplace is regulated, and consumers aren't prosecuted -- but suppliers can't exist. Naturally, organized crime stepped in to fill the void. Unfortunately, that also means that hard drugs are never very far away.
"The Dutch approach is a better-than-nothing solution," said Chimed Jansen, a chemistry student I spoke to, "but not a good solution. It has left itself wide open to criticism by never developing a functional policy. The coffeeshops, while profitable businesses, face possible closing at any time for a multitude of reasons: schools close by, neighbours not liking the customers, customers found carrying hard drugs during raids, etc. Not only that, they are forced to work with criminals to function since the production of cannabis is illegal."
I was in Amsterdam because my documentary, Damage Done: The Drug War Odyssey, was being screened as part of a Cannabis Tribunal. Former NYPD detective Frank Serpico, who is in my film, travelled with me. We were invited to speak because Damage Done is about a group of cops, including Frank, and Canadian Senator Larry Campbell, who believe that the War on Drugs does more harm than the drugs themselves.
We presented a copy of our film to the chief of the Amsterdam-Amstelland Police, who told me that he became a cop because of Frank.
Since the Netherlands is in the process of re-examining its drug policy, it was an interesting time to visit. The famous open-mindedness of the Dutch is being challenged by those who subscribe to a more conservative, faith-based political dogma. When I asked my new Dutch friends what Canadians should take away from the Dutch experience, they offered a few suggestions: "Maybe Canada can start its own licensed coffeeshop system for 18-plus and from the start let every coffeeshop appoint two or three growers, who would then get a licence and pay taxes. That would eliminate most illegal growing," said Mila Jansen, an inventor and entrepreneur.
A lot of discussion took place around public education. Society needs to accept that drug use is here to stay, no matter how much we may want it to disappear. There will always be those who want to use drugs, and who won't buy into anti-drug propaganda or be deterred by stiff sentences. What we tell our children is especially important: "Provide for an honest drug education. Exaggerating or misleading kids only works miracles for losing your credibility," said Job Joris Arnold, a journalist and drug policy activist.
Legalizing tobacco and alcohol -- but not cannabis -- is hypocritical, and kids realize that. "Just Say No" never worked. Try it yourself. Tell any teenager that they can't have something they want, no matter how innocuous, and see what happens.
The usefulness of surveying rates of drug use and abuse is arguable. The rates of truthfulness with which people respond to such studies must differ depending on whether one lives in a country in which admitting to such behaviours could result in jail time.
If such studies prove anything definitively, it's that prohibition doesn't work. According to the same UN study, the use of heroin and MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) are higher in the Netherlands than in Canada. Why the difference? Good question. The field is full of tremendous opportunities for further research.
"Nobody knows the reasons for this difference in use levels," said Frederik Polak, a psychiatrist I interviewed.
"Another point that is not clear is whether this must be seen as a grave problem, a small problem, or as no problem," he continued. "In general it is automatically assumed that higher drug use levels are a bad thing. Many people see even unproblematic drug use as morally wrong. We want to make the case that, for most users, the recreational and functional use of drugs provides pleasure and enhances quality of life."
The lower rate of pot smoking in the Netherlands would certainly seem to indicate that the way to solve our drug problem is to legalize drugs. Soon, even prohibitionists will have to admit this is the case. It is a concept that certainly warrants further consideration.
In Canada we are already struggling to develop an efficient, government-regulated system of cannabis supply for medical uses. Once the bugs in that system get worked out -- and there are many -- supplying to the retail trade won't be a huge leap. Are there cannabis coffeeshops in our future?
Connie Littlefield's films include, Hofmann's Potion: The Early Years of LSD, and Damage Done: The Drug War Odyssey.
By Connie Littlefield
February 17, 2009