Kerlikowske draws the wrong conclusions

What can be learned from the Dutch cannabis experience?
Monday, August 16, 2010

coffeeshoplicenseIn "Has the time come to legalize drugs?" Andres Oppenheimer, the influential opinion maker about Latin American affairs at the Miami Herald, describes how the debate about cannabis regulation "is rapidly moving to the mainstream in Latin America." He quotes White House drug czar Kerlikowske who argues that The Netherlands proves that relaxation of cannabis laws increases consumption, and that the Dutch government is now reversing its strategy. That requires some rectification.

The Dutch experience is relevant for the current debate about regulating drugs in Latin America. Sitting and former Presidents of Mexico have called for such a debate as a possible answer to the spiralling violence unleashed by an all-out military offensive by President Felipe Calderón against Mexico's drug cartels, which has cost 28,000 lives since 2006. Oppenheimer gives cannabis regulation the benefit of doubt over failed drug war strategies tried so far and concludes: "Perhaps the time has come to take a step-by-step approach and start a serious debate about passing laws that would regulate legal production of marijuana, alongside massive education campaigns to discourage people from using it. Then, we could see who is right and consider what to do next."

Oppenheimer puts the question to White House drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske, who opposes moves in that direction in spite of the fact that the debate is heating up in the US as well, with a November referendum in California that calls for legal regulation of cannabis. Latest polls show 50% in favour and 40% against. He offers two arguments against it. Firstly, according to Oppenheimer, "Kerlikowske disputed the idea that alcohol prohibition drove up crime in the United States in the 1920s, arguing that there were no reliable crime statistics at the time."

Without going into the details here about the scientific evidence of the criminogenic effects of alcohol prohibition, it makes one wonder whether Kerlikowske ever goes to the movies. But the second argument he makes is that the experience in The Netherlands proves that relaxation of cannabis laws makes consumption rates go up, and that the Dutch government has recognised so much and is now reversing its strategy. "In the Netherlands, consumption did go up. In fact, the Netherlands has been in the process of closing down hundreds of the marijuana cafes that had been in existence because of the problems that are occurring," he said.

Kerlikowske basically argues that it has been tried already and failed, that the Dutch experience has shown the negative consequences of relaxing cannabis control and therefore Mexico should not consider repeating the mistakes that the Dutch government itself now tries to repair by closing coffeeshops. That requires some rectification. It is true that the number of coffee shops has gone down in The Netherlands, but that has nothing to do with a policy response to supposedly rising cannabis consumption levels. Between 1999-2007 the number of coffeeshops steadily decreased from 846 to 702. Early nineties the number was even higher, well above a thousand, but there are less accurate data available.

Reasons for the decline are rooted in a process of increased regulation of what was initially a somewhat unregulated growth. The coffeeshop model was not designed from above but was a market response to the policy decision to lower prosecution priority for cannabis possession, the de facto decriminalization that underlies Dutch cannabis policy. The reduction of the number of coffeeshops was the result of a stricter implementation of the rules established in early nineties such as no sales to minors and no stocks larger than 500 grs, and some new regulations more recently about minimum distance from schools and no criminal record for licensed owners, etc.

Despite the tolerated sale of 5 gram amounts to adults through the coffeeshop system, the levels of consumption of cannabis in The Netherlands are still similar to those of neighbouring countries like Germany and Belgium, and much lower than in the UK, France, Spain or the US. A reality hard to accept for those officials who still believe that strict enforcement of cannabis prohibition diminishes consumption, as it is supposed to do.

Last year an indepth evaluation of Dutch drugs policy trends and outcomes between 1972 and 2008 arrived at a number of clear conclusions:

  • There are no indications that the coffee shops have led to an inordinate rise in cannabis use, at least among adults. Compared to other western countries, cannabis use in the general Dutch population is relatively low.
  • For all drugs, with the exception of ecstasy, the Netherlands scores below the European average for prevalence of use in the general population, and lower than prevalence rates in the US.
  • It may be concluded that the markets for hard and soft drugs remain largely separate in the Netherlands.
  • It may be asserted that Dutch drug policy has been reasonably successful, even by today’s standards, in achieving the goals set out, although certain problems continually require renewed attention.

This is also confirmed by the annual reports and statistics produced by the EMCDDA, the European drug monitoring centre in Lisbon. See for example their latest graph on cannabis use among different age groups in the EU, showing The Netherlands (NL) in the middle range: cannabis-lastmonth-2010
Last 30 days prevalence of cannabis use among all adults (aged 15 to 64), young adults (aged 15 to 34) and for the 15 to 24 year age group (EMCDDA Statistical bulletin 2010)

The problems surrounding the Dutch coffeeshop model are not that it increased cannabis use, but are rooted in the paradox that the sale and possession of small quantities are no longer prosecuted, while the supply to the coffeeshops (cultivation and trade in larger amounts) are still fully criminalized. Since 2000 a parliamentary majority has been in favour of experiments with the legal regulation of cannabis supply, to take that out of criminal hands and bring it under health authority control.

So far none of the Dutch governments had the courage to implement those resolutions, based on the argument that it would violate their obligations under the UN drug control treaties. Many municipalities have expressed their wish to start such experiments at a local level. It is the only way to end the paradox and to reduce the criminality still surrounding the supply-side of the cannabis market. Many mayors in The Netherlands, and many civil servants and parliamentarians, will applaud wholeheartedly if either Mexico or any other country in Latin America, or indeed California, would have the political courage to take steps in the direction of a fully regulated cannabis market.

Very few would argue that the lessons of the Dutch model warn in any way against that. To the contrary, the experiences of The Netherlands and other countries that have introduced more tolerant policies towards cannabis like Spain, Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Australia and parts of the United States and India, have provided only positive lessons supporting the argument that it is time to move to the next stage: experimenting with legal regulation of production and distribution of cannabis more similar to control models developed for tobacco and alcohol.

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