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.