Learning from the Netherlands: Colorado and Washington Lay Out Rules for Legal Toking

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If you want to get stoned legally — at least under state law— in Washington or Colorado next year, you’ll have to do it at home.

Amsterdam-style “coffee shops”— where the Dutch typically smoke weed— were banned by both states in their draft regulations released last week. But that doesn’t mean that the Dutch model, which separates marijuana from other illegal drugs, won’t still provide lessons for what these states can expect when their new laws on recreational toking take effect next year.

While the Netherlands has never formally legalized any type of sales or growing, since 1976, it has allowed marijuana “coffee shops” to sell small amounts that can be smoked on the premises, as long as no sales of other drugs or public nuisance occurred. And, according to a report from the Open Society Foundation, to be released next week, the policy has been highly successful. Marijuana consumption in Holland is about average for Europe — and far less than that in the U.S.

In 2011, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 23% of Dutch people aged 15 to 64 had ever tried marijuana and 7% had used it recently. In the U.S., those rates are 42% and 24%— nearly double Holland’s for lifetime use and more than triple for recent use.

(MORE: Two U.S. States Become First to Legalize Marijuana)

The lead author of the Open Society report, Jean Paul Grund, senior research associate at the Addiction Research Center in Utrecht, says that the Dutch also have fewer problem drug users than is typical in Europe and that heroin use has dramatically declined over the last several decades, with fewer young people starting to take the drug.  “The average age of people using heroin [here] is now 50 years,” he says.

Because the new laws in Washington and Colorado will permit both growing and some distribution of marijuana, they will actually be more liberal than regulations in the Netherlands, which has never legalized cannabis growing or large-scale distribution and still prosecutes those crimes.

But there are some local differences. Colorado will ban outdoor cultivation, while Washington will permit it. Washington will also separate growing, distribution and sales, providing specific regulations for each type of business, while Colorado will integrate them, requiring that sellers grow 70% of what they sell themselves. Only Colorado will allow home growing— of up to six plants— and it will allow people to share or give away up to an ounce to friends. Both states will restrict advertising, tax sales (Washington’s taxes will be higher, at least initially), ban selling to people under 21, require health warning labels and permit retail selling of only an ounce or less.

(MORE: More Kids Accidentally Ingesting Marijuana Following New Drug Policies)

It’s not clear yet what impact these differences will have on the market. The Dutch experience suggests that commercial availability of marijuana does increase use; as coffee shops proliferated, toking rates rose, although they never reached levels seen in the U.S.

Dutch policy also demonstrates that it is possible to separate markets for marijuana and other drugs, minimizing any “gateway” effect that might be caused by marijuana dealers introducing users to other substances. “We argue that coffee shops and tolerance of cannabis played an important role in pacifying the heroin epidemic and keeping young people away from that,” says Grund. And there’s evidence for that. In a 1999 report, the Institute of Medicine reviewed the data and concluded that there was little support for the idea that marijuana, which is often the first drug used by heroin and cocaine addicts, specifically leads users to others drugs.

A less straightforward issue that Colorado and Washington regulators face is the relationship between marijuana and alcohol.  Will people who use marijuana smoke while drinking— potentially adding to overall drug-related harm — or smoke instead of drinking? The Netherlands’ story, unfortunately, provides little insight into this question and research has produced conflicting results. The most recent data [PDF] suggests that users tend to choose one or the other. That study, published in 2011, found that when people reached legal drinking age, alcohol use rose while marijuana use fell.

(MORE: Pot Is Legal in Washington: Q&A with the Man Who Is Making Weed Legit)

So which state’s model will be better at reducing drug-related harm? “I wouldn’t do either,” says Mark Kleiman, professor of public policy at the University of California in Los Angeles, who served as Washington’s “pot czar” and consulted on its regulations.

He argues that sales would be best handled by the government, rather than commercial enterprises that may be more incentivized by profits. But that can’t happen while the drug remains illegal on the federal level.

(MORE: Viewpoint: From ‘Aggressive’ Trayvon to ‘Laid-Back’ Dzhokhar — Marijuana’s Changing Image)

And by banning public use, Grund says both states may be missing an opportunity to promote responsible behavior. Although coffee houses appear to condone smoking, banning them might keep the weed market underground where smokers may not find the best role models for moderation. “[That’s] always been an important part of the whole coffee shop experience,” Grund says, “This is where people would talk about cannabis and also where younger users would be educated on how to use marijuana. There’s a self regulation feature to it.”

Eddy Engelsman, a major architect of Dutch drug policy in his former position as director of alcohol, drugs and tobacco policies for the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports, says regulations should “be pragmatic and base[d] … on facts. The aim of regulating should be the minimizing of risks [from] drug use.”

Whether Colorado or Washington will apply those lessons — and whether the federal government will allow them to do so — remains to be seen.

21 comments
quando25
quando25

I think this was a very good article and points out the fact that this substance should be made legal. We have no problem allowing people to drink as much alcohol as they like which can actually kill you and we made a harmless thing like pot illegal.. makes no sense to me... Thanks for the great article...  http://curtindentalcare.skyrock.com

Plucas
Plucas

I think it's a shame that the legalization policies in WA and CO don't maximize the potential public health benefits of cannabis substitution effect by licensing cannabis-only coffee shops.  This would give adults a viable alternative to going to establishments that serve alcohol, which is our default adult social setting in North America.  I have conducted extensive research on cannabis substitution effect in medical cannabis patients, and although the use in question was therapeutic, 41% of patients report that cannabis was a substitute for alcohol,  and 36% report it was a substitute for illicit substances.  The study can be found at: http://philippelucasvictoria.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/rx-mj-as-a-substitute-for-aod-addiction-research-and-theory-2012-in-press.pdf

nolansherwood
nolansherwood

Marijuana is not a drug, it has no harmful physical or mental effects. Tobacco is a dangerous crop, it contains nicotine addictive and many tars and poisons. What should be illegal, smoking a harmless crop, or smoking a deadly poisonous one?

anonymous132269
anonymous132269

It is absolutely ridiculous that this will be illegal in public when cigarettes are allowed.

billgriggs4
billgriggs4

The data on use rates in the US provided in this article is wrong. According to the federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 42% of all Americans 12 and older have smoked marijuana, not just those 15 through 64.  Over half of all American adults under the age of 65 have smoked it. And, nowhere near 24% have used it recently. Only about 11.5% admit past year use and 7% admit past month use.

"The Dutch experience suggests that commercial availability of marijuana does increase use; as coffee shops proliferated, toking rates rose, although they never reached levels seen in the U.S."

It is important to note that while marijuana use did go up in the Netherlands during this time, hardly anyone was smoking pot there yet when they started allowing coffeeshops but marijuana use was on the rise throughout Western Europe. If marijuana was already popular and widely used when they started allowing these coffeeshops to operate, use may not have gone up at all or may have only gone up a little. 

The coffeeshops increased dramatically availability in the Netherlands. When very few people use marijuana in a country or large area it's not going to be that easy to find, it won't be so easily available. When demand is high, that demand is met though. There is a lot of product on the market and just about everyone knows people who use it that they can get it from.  In the US a greater percentage of our population smokes pot than in the Netherlands. Even though we don't have shops that are allowed to sell it, it is easily available everywhere in this country. If people want it, they can find it. We could hardly make it more easily available by legalizing it.

Just like in the Netherlands, most people don't want marijuana in the US though. The issue isn't availability. It's super easy to find. Legal status doesn't have a whole lot to do with use rates either, obviously, or we wouldn't have more people smoking it than they do in the Netherlands where people are allowed to buy it, possess it and even grow a little. Use would be much higher in states with lax laws than in those where it is a more serious crime, and that' not the case. As we can see from use rates here and in the Netherlands, while a significant minority may want to smoke pot, it is a product with limited demand.  Otherwise, everyone would be smoking it in the Netherlands because  it's allowed there.  The Dutch aren't that different than us. 

Most people who want to smoke marijuana are already smoking it.  Legalizing it isn't going to increase use that much.  We need to stop worrying about that so much. In fact, the few people who aren't smoking pot now just because it's illegal are the least of our worries. They've already shown that they have some self control and are law abiding citizens. The idiots people worry about are already smoking pot if they are so inclined. 


PaulvanderHeu
PaulvanderHeu

As far as the relation alcohol <> canabis goes, in The Netherlands a shop selling canabis is not allowed to also sell alcoholic beverages and v.v.

In general people smoking canabis will drink fruitjuice, water, softdrinks, tea or coffee.

TeeGeeRoo
TeeGeeRoo

Keeping cannabis underground while "legal" is still a problem.  Both CO and WA are making mistakes. 

 Adult landowners should be able to grow their own (indoors or out), without restriction (perhaps one restriction - what you grow for personal use is not for sale).

 Beyond that, I believe the Dutch model is superior.  If you are not in your home town, where do you go to smoke legally in CO or WA?

 The dutch coffee shops are very open to the public.  Most shops have windows to the streets; the atmosphere is not clandestine or surrounded by stigma.  This open atmosphere promotes responsible behavior.

 When a behavior is considered socially acceptable, people do not hide that behavior.  Acceptable social limits are automatically established.  When you drive behavior underground, the dark side of humanity shows itself.

Hermione
Hermione

So what is exactly the drama here?  People should have the right to eat, drink and smoke whatever they want, in the privacy of their homes.


And we really need BIG government to spell this out for us?

schroeder.cary
schroeder.cary

Saw a film for DUI class that said.  90% of all baby boomers smoked weed.  The parks are going to be filled with tourist smoking weed.  Or eating it so they won't get busted.

thomasvesely
thomasvesely

if marijuana becomes legal children will lose their will to live.

there will be group suicides on every street block.

herbalmagick
herbalmagick

@billgriggs4 Perhaps the reason a higher percentage of Americans use marijuana is that we lead more stressful lives.  I believe that, with its ubiquitous availability, there are only two reasons an American wouldn't use it: they're not interested or they are committed to breaking no laws.  After legalization, the latter group would try it.  On the other hand, with the "forbidden fruit" aspect gone, a lot of adolescents would lose interest.

lowerfredrick1
lowerfredrick1

Yes, I have been to Amsterdam and can confirm this. There is no alcohol sold in the 'coffee' shops.

herbalmagick
herbalmagick

@TeeGeeRoo Neither state requires that you smoke only at home.  Smoking is forbidden in "public places".  Public places do not include private clubs or smoking-allowed hotel rooms.  Private smoking clubs are already appearing in CO and WA.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@Hermione Pot isn't a big deal, but surely you're not suggesting that we legalize meth. If you are, then you're making a good case for big government.

nolansherwood
nolansherwood

@thomasvesely Yes in fact he is not only mentally ill his reality is warped to believe in mass suicidal chaos and the end of the world starting from marijuana legalization. You my friend have problems.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@JonnyKiish @hsknyc 

hey geniuses, @thomasvesely is clearly joking. it's called sarcasm. jesus. open a book or something.

and @JonnyKiish, please, do tell, what's the difference between being retarded and a complete idiot? same thing there buddy. you basically just asked him "are you retarded? @thomasvesely yea you must be. either that or a retard (complete idiot)!!!!" way to show off the intellectual prowess there

hsknyc
hsknyc

@thomasvesely 

That is the stupidest thing anyone has said about pot. Just spewing BS to make a point? How about you find some facts!?  maybe your kids will kill themselves dealing with your stupidity.

JonnyKiish
JonnyKiish

are you retarded? @thomasvesely yea you must be. either that or a complete idiot!!!

billgriggs4
billgriggs4

@herbalmagick @billgriggs4 I don't think there are that many committed to breaking no laws.  Most people will drive a little too fast or whatever if they think they can get away with it.  Our marijuana laws have little deterrent effect because it's so easy to get away with smoking pot.  Most people never get caught, even if they do it thousands of times over the course of decades.  There are no victims to call the police.  Most witnesses are smoking pot too so they aren't going to say anything.  usually people who get caught are doing something stupid, like smoking while driving or breaking other laws and/or hanging around with trouble makers. Anyone could be unlucky and get popped, but the vast majority won't provided they are otherwise law abiding citizens and they just leave that stuff at home.  People know this and that's why our laws deter so few who want to smoke pot. They don't think they'll get caught and know that if they do they'll likely get a slap on the wrist and they don't feel like government should be telling them they can't do something as benign as smoking pot as long as they aren't hurting anyone or putting anyone else at risk. 

The precious few who just won't break any laws but would like to smoke pot if it was legal, they're the least of our concern because they've already shown they are law abiding citizens with a good measure of self control.  They're the least likely to be problem users.  The big screw ups, they've ignored the laws and are already smoking pot.  I really believe that most who want to do it are already doing it.