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Drawing Analogies from Dutch Marijuana Policy to U.S. Policy in "Legalization" Debate Difficult, Say Experts


November-December 1997

A comparison of Dutch and U.S. marijuana policy from 1970 to the present suggests that depenalization has had limited effects on marijuana use, but that commercial access is related to a growth in the marijuana-using population, according to recent article in Science. The article was written by Peter Reuter at the School of Public Affairs and Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland, and Robert MacCoun at the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley (Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter, "Interpreting Dutch Cannabis Policy: Reasoning by Analogy in the Legalization Debate," Science, Vol. 278, October 3, 1997, p. 47). [This issue of Science is titled "The Science of Substance Abuse," and has many important articles, including one authored by Dr. Alan Leshner, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse - RCT.]

The article argues that one general strategy for projecting the likely consequences of a change in U.S. drug policy is to project "the effects of depenalizing or legalizing drugs in the contemporary United States on the basis of analogy to experiences of other places ..." Specifically, the article examines Dutch marijuana policy, which has been prominent in the U.S. "legalization" debate. MacCoun and Reuter write, "A closer examination suggests that the actual Dutch policies are considerably more nuanced and the results more ambiguous than is generally understood, and that drawing lessons for the United States is extremely difficult."

In 1976, the Dutch adopted a formal written policy of nonenforcement of marijuana violations involving possession or sale of up to 30 grams of marijuana. Between 1976 and 1986, Dutch guidelines emerged allowing "coffee shops" to avoid prosecution for marijuana sales provided owners comply with five rules: (1) no advertising; (2) no selling "hard drugs" on the premises; (3) no sales to minors; (4) no sales exceeding the 30 grams quantity threshold; and (5) no public disturbances. In 1995, the 30 gram threshold was lowered to 5 grams. Currently there are between 1200 and 1500 "coffee shops" selling marijuana in the Netherlands.

The article compares data from various years of the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (U.S.), and two periodic surveys of drug use in the Netherlands after 1984: the Timbos Institute national school-based survey and the University of Amsterdam's general population surveys. The authors used an analysis of 20 earlier surveys, controlling for differences in age range, region, and survey characteristics, to estimate Dutch drug use during the period 1970 to 1983.

The authors conclude:

There is no evidence that the depenalization component of the 1976 [Dutch] policy, per se, increased levels of cannabis use. On the other hand, the later growth in commercial access to cannabis, after de facto legalization, was accompanied by steep increases in use, even among youth. In interpreting that association, three points deserve emphasis. First, the association may not be causal; we have already seen that recent increases occurred in the United States and Oslo despite very different policies. Second, throughout most of the first two decades of the 1976 policy, Dutch use levels have remained at or below those in the United States. And third, it remains to be seen whether prevalence levels will drop again in response to the reduction to a 5-g[ram] limit, and to the recent government efforts to close down coffee shops and more aggressively enforce regulations.

Dr. Peter Reuter - School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, Tel: (301) 405-6367, Fax: (301) 403-4675.

Dr. Rob MacCoun - Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-7320, Tel: (510) 642-7518.