Did Cannabis Cafés Make the Netherlands Go to Pot?

In an essay recently published online by the journal Addiction, U.C.-Berkeley psychologist Robert J. MacCoun, a leading drug policy scholar, reviews the evidence concerning the impact of quasi-legalization on marijuana consumption in the Netherlands. Since 1976 the Dutch government has tolerated the retail sale of cannabis (which is still officially prohibited) while continuing to enforce bans on production and large-scale distribution. Although this policy had "no detectable effects on cannabis use" for a dozen years, MacCoun writes, from 1984 to 1996 "the percentage of 18–20-year-olds who had ever used cannabis rose from 15% to 44%, with past-month prevalence rising from 8.5% to 18.5%." He argues that the "the rapid expansion of retail cannabis outlets" during this period helps explain the rise in consumption, which occurred at a time when "prevalence trends were either flat or declining in the United States, Oslo, Catalunya, Stockholm, Denmark, Germany, Canada and Australia." Marijuana use nevertheless remained less common in the Netherlands, where it was openly sold in safe and friendly cafés, than in the United States, where it had to be purchased and consumed surreptitiously at the risk of arrest. "Cannabis consumption in the Netherlands is lower than would be expected in an unrestricted market," MacCoun says, "perhaps because cannabis prices have remained high due to production-level prohibitions." His major findings:

The available evidence suggests that the prevalence of cannabis use among Dutch citizens rose and fell as the number of coffeeshops increased and later declined, but only modestly. The coffeeshops do not appear to encourage escalation into heavier use or lengthier using careers, although treatment rates for cannabis are higher than elsewhere in Europe [but lower than in the U.S.]. Scatterplot analyses suggest that Dutch patterns of use are very typical for Europe, and that the "separation of markets" may indeed have somewhat weakened the link between cannabis use and the use of cocaine or amphetamines.

MacCoun notes that the relatively high treatment rate in the Netherlands (compared to the rates of most other European countries) seems inconsistent with Dutch users' "relatively modest cannabis continuation rates" and "quantities consumed." He says "one possibility is that the Dutch are more generous and proactive in providing treatment."

MacCoun cautions that the Dutch policy is not really legalization, so it does not necessarily tell us what might happen if all penalties for production and sale were eliminated. But it is striking that the worst consequence of allowing cannabis cafés he cites—the increase in casual use among young adults between 1984 and 1996—is alarming only if you assume that it caused serious personal or social problems. MacCoun says "other types of consequences (for public safety, public order, economic productivity, family life, health and personal enjoyment) are not examined because they are so difficult to quantify and because they pose such severe causal identification problems." But in the absence of some evidence than an increase in marijuana consumption causes intolerable difficulties, it should be counted as a benefit, not a cost, since people smoke pot because they enjoy it, and more pleasure, other things being equal, is a good thing.

In his May 2010 Reason cover story about "L.A.'s Pot Revolution," Brian Doherty argued that the fallout from open, widespread retail sale of cannabis in Los Angeles was similarly unalarming. A few months ago, I noted that Holland's highest court had blessed the Dutch government's new policy of closing "coffeehouses" to foreigners, which is officially motivated by the nuisances associated with "drug tourism." MacCoun says the shift is partly due to "the complexities of recent coalition politics" in the Netherlands—"in particular the rising influence of Geert Wilders' far-right party."

Remember when Bill Clinton's drug czar, in his eagerness to demonstrate the folly of the Dutch model, claimed "the murder rate in Holland is double that in the United States"? 

[Thanks to Allen St. Pierre for the tip.]

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  • concerned prohibitionist||

    any use will lead to white womenz orgying w black jazz musicians.

  • Destrudo||

    Dear 02,
    Is it necessary for you to make this comment for every single marijuana-related article? I realize you are fishing for someone to compliment you on your wit; it's not going to happen.

  • teh rael o2||

    i just cannot get past how successful that agiprop film was. unbelievable

  • ||

    I cannot get over the fact that a mechanical engineer constantly writes like a retarded third grader.

  • teh rael o2||

    blackberry einstein

  • BakedPenguin||

    We don't care what bagel you eat after you get high; we think you should write better.

  • ||

    You say that like it's a bad thing.

  • ola||

    "But in the absence of some evidence than an increase in marijuana consumption causes intolerable difficulties, it should be counted as a benefit, not a cost....."

    Well put Jacob, on local talk radio there is always a discussion about how cali's mmj laws are a "farce" and "anybody who has a hangnail can get it". Well, what is the downside? There is never discussion about how people smoking pot is a harm except the part about people still being arrested for it. The people who call in never seem to put the pieces together to come up with what you wrote above. Oh well.

  • Tim||

    Vincent: And you know what they call a... a... a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
    Jules: They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with cheese?
    Vincent: No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn't know what the f**k a Quarter Pounder is.
    Jules: Then what do they call it?
    Vincent: They call it a Royale with cheese.
    Jules: A Royale with cheese. What do they call a Big Mac?
    Vincent: Well, a Big Mac's a Big Mac, but they call it le Big-Mac.
    Jules: Le Big-Mac. Ha ha ha ha. What do they call a Whopper?
    Vincent: I dunno, I didn't go into Burger King.

  • ||

    The available evidence suggests that the prevalence of cannabis use among Dutch citizens rose and fell as the number of coffeeshops increased and later declined, but only modestly.

    Perhaps the number of coffeeshops rose and fell as the demand for cannabis rose and fell?

    Why do people who don't have any private sector experience always, always, seem to assume that supply drives demand, and not the other way around?

  • Reformed Republican||

    I thought the same thing, but I did not know if there might have been changes in legislation that would have caused the change in the number of coffeeshops.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Now, be fair. I don't think Paul Krugman has any real-world experience, and he's all about the demand kurv driving supply.

  • JD the elder||

    I can see how there might be more people trying cannabis if it's sold on every street corner, versus having to go to even a small amount of effort to find it. I still don't see why it matters much, though.

  • ||

    Just so. Demand that varies with convenience is by definition casual demand. Which is also, pretty much be definition, harmless.

    So even if there is a fair chunk of demand that is "supply-driven", you can pretty much write that off as harmless.

  • ||

    Why is increased marijuana use a bad thing? Perhaps it makes people happy. Helps them get through the day. Have a good time. Why should the policy goal be to reduce its usage or even be concerned with its usage?

  • Tim||

    "You can only be sure of your control over a man when you can force him to suffer"
    Read that somewhere.

  • Robert||

    To placate those who think it's a bad thing.

    Enjoyment doesn't count as a good thing if it's not accompanied by tangible benefits to persons other than those doing the enjoying.

  • ||

    Suppose someone were decide to wash dishes for a living and make just enough money to put a roof over their head and buy enough dope to stay stoned all of the time. Assuming they paid their own bills and were happy, I say bully for them. I think I may be the only person on earth who can look at it that way.

  • ||

    No, you're not alone.

  • BakedPenguin||

    ...treatment rates for cannabis are higher than elsewhere in Europe...

    Treatment rates? Srsly?

    Hey, you know that part where you stick the joint in your mouth and light it? Stop doing that.

  • ||

    No shit. Perhaps my favorite thing about the Keith Richards biography is that here we have a book by the most notorious junkie in the last forty years and not a single time does he refer to his drug use as a "disease" or anything but a choice on his part. It is just amazingly refreshing.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Reminds me of the scene in Half Baked when Thurgood goes to NA, and gets ridiculed by the others when they discover he's there for pot.

  • A Floridian||

    "A few months ago, I noted that Holland's highest court had blessed the Dutch government's new policy of closing "coffeehouses" to foreigners, which is officially motivated by the nuisances associated with "drug tourism."

    I think we should close public beaches to non-Floridians because of the nuisances associated with beach tourism.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    And when massive chinks of their economy disappears overnight, they'll wonder what the fuck happened.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Or massive chunks even, being that I highly doubt that very large oriental folk will be missing from their economy.

  • ||

    The Netherlands from 30 years ago doesn't exist anymore so any comparison with that time is useless.

    There are now 1 million immigrants in the Netherlands that because of their strict religious background are prohibited from using alcohol and cannabis use among those people, especially the young, might be sky high.

    The whole picture painted in this article could be as severely out of perspective like a Picasso. I wonder where he got his inspiration from? Jazz musicians maybe?

  • ||

    What is undeniable is that the Netherlands has in recent years had more organised serious drug crime (all drugs) than any other nation in Europe.

    The Netherlands because of drug toleration policies and mixed messages became an entrepot state, a warehouse for all drugs for distribution to neighbouring countries and a prime producer of ATS (amphetamine type substances) which have been exported all over the world. Dutch criminality has now exported drug manufacture to other elss well policed countries eg Poland.

    For a time the murder rate WAS very high.

    Some of the Netheralnds role in drug distribution is related to historical communication links and the port status of Rotterdam but a lot is attributable to tolerant dutch society, low penalties for traficking and an overwhelmed Police Service. that is changing. Dutch criminality also gave rise to more damaging strains of Cannabis, low in CBD-Nederweit. Originally in high demand because it is stronger in THC, it is a very dangerous substance compared with milder old forms with a higher ratio of CBD to THC.

    McCoun seems to understand none of this.

    McCoun says "the Dutch are more generous and proactive in providing treatment."

    Well yes, importantly they are much more aware of the real harms of cannabis than some other states. That is why there is a reaction against cannabis and all drugs in dutch society.

  • ||

    David, First off, you post nothing to support your assertions. That is troubling for most readers concerned with this issue. Secondly, ATS substances are not the issue here, and no one is arguing that prohibition does not increase organized crime!

    Dutch tolerance still does not remove criminal aspects of distribution and it makes sense that similar if not the same pipelines are used for all ILLEGAL drugs, as cannabis is still illegal in The Netherlands!

    The only fact that is beyond dispute is that no one has tried full legalization of cannabis and no one can scientifically say what results, positive or negative, cannabis legalization would or wouldn't have.

    So, I take offense to your post which paints an inaccurate picture in The Netherlands.

  • ||

    Let's find out!

  • Diane||

    NEWS TIP: FBI Investigating Australian Federal Police Intrusion On Anti-Corruption Website

    For Your Information:

    The Expendable Project is breaking a major scandal, in the form of corruption and abuse of office in Canberra, through the publication of the Australian government's own emails and cables.

    But, although they have not broken the law in doing so, the Australian Federal Police, who are also exposed by the revelations, have been caught deploying ripper software against the Expendable.TV website, hosted in the United States. The 'Ripper0' software not only takes illegal copies of a website, but intrudes behind the public presentation, and reveals information about any security vulnerabilities.

    The Expendable Project have lodged a complaint with the FBI, and have published extracts from the site log on their website:
    http://www.expendable.tv/2011/.....ng-of.html

    The Australian government itself is also revealed as being extremely active on the website, through a multitude of daily visits from almost every government department. However, they have yet to even acknowledge the disclosures, despite their gravity, and national importance.

    The emails and cables so far disclosed reveal:
    - the withholding of vital primary evidence from a citizen before a foreign court (Schapelle Corby)
    - the clear misleading of the Australian Parliament
    - direct lies to Parliament and the media
    - wilful efforts to suppress relevant and important information, including with respect to airport security.

    These revelations, presented directly from the government's own material, also remain unreported by the Australian media, an aspect which is causing increasing concern amongst proponents of a free press, and democratic accountability.

    The project promises to continue its schedule of timed publications.

    Regards

    Diane

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