Go ahead, ask a cop for dope. The Dutch don't mind
It is a weird experience. You walk up to a Dutch policeman, and ask where to get some marijuana. You are smilingly directed to the nearest "coffee shop", where the menu offers everything cannabinoid from something called Space Cake to Northern Lights, a local weed.
In much of the world, this could never happen: the penalties for using cannabis are severe. But in 1976, the Dutch legalised the possession of small amounts. What has happened since? Some say that crime has soared, schoolchildren drop out, and heroin addiction is rife. Others insist the Netherlands is a stoned paradise of peace and love.
"I've visited their parks. Their children walk around like zombies," says Lee Brown, head of the US Office for National Drug Control Policy. "Hard drug use -- heroin and cocaine -- has declined substantially," says Paul Hager of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.
Most comments seems to seem to depend on the speaker's politics. So what is the truth about the great Dutch cannabis experiment?
"There was no immediate increase in cannabis use after 1976," says Arjan Sas of the Centre for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam. "Trends in use have generally been the same as in other countries." The percentage who regularly use either cannabis or hard drugs is lower in the Netherlands than in many European countries, including Britain. And the number of hard drug addicts in the Netherlands has not increased for a decade, while their average age is rising.
Dutch statistics, however, are far from conclusive. The first national survey of drug use in the Netherlands is only just being done. There have been smaller-scale studies of particular towns or age groups but comparing them is fraught with statistical problems.
Nonetheless, Dirk Korf of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Amsterdam has used the smaller studies to estimate that 3 per cent of Dutch people had used cannabis at least once in 1970, rising to 12 per cent in 1991. The best guess for 1998 is 14 per cent.
Most of that increase, says Korf, is because "lifetime use" figures are cumulative: people who had used it in 1970 are still around, and are joined by younger users over time. More to the point, he says, is to compare the number of teenagers who start using cannabis. In 1970, he estimates that 20 per cent of all Dutch 18-year-olds surveyed had used it at least once; in 1980, that had fallen to 15 per cent. By 1987, it was 18 per cent, an increase, Korf says, that mirrors the increase in the number of coffee shops in the mid-1980s. Now, about 30 per cent of Dutch 18-year-olds are said to have tried cannabis, though some researchers think that is an overestimate based on studies of Amsterdam where coffee shops abound.
But did more people try cannabis after it was legalised? It seems so. At the Centre for Drug Research, Sas and Peter Cohen divided Amsterdamers surveyed in 1987, 1990 and 1994 into two groups -- those that were born before 1958, who were 18 or older in 1976, and those that were born after 1976, for whom cannabis has always been legal. Only 19 per cent of the oldies had tried cannabis, compared with 38 per cent of the younger group.
That difference could be partly misleading. Dutch surveys show that the vast majority of people who use cannabis do so almost exclusively in their 20s. The drug became common in the Netherlands in the mid-1960s, so for the older group members who were already more than 30, it was too late. Nonetheless, the data suggest that more people did try cannabis after decriminalisation.
But what counts, though, says Sas, is how many continue to use it. In Amsterdam, 55 per cent of people who say they have tried cannabis only end up using it a couple of dozen times or less. The rest may have used it more often, but more than half have not used it in the past month. The data show, says Sas, that legalising cannabis may make you more likely to try it, but it does not make it more likely that you will continue to use it.
But it is by no means certain that the first half of that conclusion is correct. Korf finds that surveys of the number of Germans who use cannabis "virtually parallels" the peaks and troughs in Dutch surveys between 1970 and 1990, even though Germany has prohibited cannabis throughout the period. Surveys of young Americans in the 1970s and 1980s found "substantially higher prevalence rates" than in Holland, peaking at 50 per cent of high-school seniors in 1980, although the US was strongly prohibitionist.
Since then, says Korf, there have been no discernible differences in use between US states that have decriminalised, and those that have not, while cannabis use has increased in the US and Western Europe since 1990, regardless of the legal framework. "There is no appreciable causal connection between the Dutch decriminalisation of cannabis and the rate at which cannabis use has evolved," Korf concludes.
Last year, Robert MacCoun of the University of California at Berkeley and Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland, compared trends in cannabis use in the US, Norway (which bans it) and the Netherlands. They also concluded that "reductions in criminal penalties have little effect on drug use, at least for marijuana".
While the 1976 legislation may have had little effect on cannabis use, how effective has it been in its main goal of keeping people off harder drugs? The Netherlands has fewer addicts per capita than Italy, Spain, Switzerland, France or Britain, and far fewer than the US. Frits Knaak of the Trimbos Institute in Utrecht, the Dutch national institute for mental health and addiction, says the number of hard drug addicts in the country has been the same for a decade because fewer young people are joining their ranks. The average Dutch junkie is now 44 years old and only 0.3 per cent of Dutch teenagers had tried cocaine in 1994, compared with 1.7 per cent in the US. In the Netherlands, virtually everyone who uses drugs tries cannabis first, and many seem content to go no further.
Cannabis addiction and other problems are uncommon. "The number of cannabis users treated in drugs outpatient facilities is low," says Knaak. "In 1996, there were only 2000 [patients] in the whole country -- just 0.3 per cent of all Dutch cannabis users."
Of those, 42 per cent "are also having trouble with alcohol or other drugs -- the rest usually just need counselling to help change their lifestyle", says Sas. Most people who find cannabis causing trouble with concentration or memory at work or school, he says, apply rules, like no smoking on week nights, or they limit their intake.
This self-policing seems to work. Dutch teenagers get among the highest scores in the world on international science and mathematics tests. If there are serious problems caused by legalising marijuana, then twenty-plus years of the Dutch experiment has not revealed what they are.
From New Scientist, 21 February 1998