Policy

Why the Dutch May Take a Leaf From New U.S. Marijuana Laws


A man smokes cannabis in a coffee shop in Amsterdam on Nov. 1, 2012

Photograph by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

A man smokes cannabis in a coffee shop in Amsterdam on Nov. 1, 2012

A movement is growing in the Netherlands to eliminate an odd contradiction in the country’s famously permissive marijuana laws: While smoking pot is allowed, wholesaling and large-scale growing are not, so licensed cannabis sellers and many individuals have to get their supplies from criminals.

In a statement (pdf) issued Jan. 31, the mayors of Amsterdam and 34 other cities called on the national government to start licensing and regulating growers and sellers, much as the states of Colorado and Washington now do. The current see-no-evil policy encourages criminal activity, threatening “the quality of life and safety in our cities,” the mayors said.

Although pot technically remains illegal in the Netherlands, people haven’t been prosecuted since the 1970s for smoking or growing small amounts for their personal use. The government also licenses special cafés known as coffeeshops where customers can buy and smoke pot. The official-tolerance policy hasn’t led to an increase in marijuana use, which remains lower in the Netherlands than in the U.S., according to a study last year.

Police in recent years, however, have begun cracking down on pot growers who sell to the coffeeshops and others, so that more and more pot is being supplied by large criminal gangs. “The government’s stricter approach triggered the scale-up and criminalization of the cannabis supply side,” the study said.

Dutch mayors agree. “This cannot go on. We have no control over the supply, which now runs through organized crime,” Mayor Peter den Oudsten of the city of Enschede told the RTV public broadcaster on Jan. 31.

Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten contends that the Netherlands will run into problems with neighboring countries if pot growing is legalized, because there are no border controls to prevent exports throughout the European Union.

Opposition is mounting, though. Frits Bolkestein, a former EU internal markets commissioner and a longtime leader of the VVD party headed by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, has said that the “international tide is turning” toward legalization and regulation, as in Colorado and Washington. The Dutch Labor Party, part of Rutte’s coalition government, also recently endorsed legalization and regulation.

Arend van den Berg, editor of the Z24 news website, says the government would benefit financially from legalization. In a recent article, he cited a study by a Dutch economist who estimated that pot growers and wholesalers could pay up to €1 billion ($1.35 billion) annually in excise taxes, while law enforcement agencies would save €150 million annually that it now spends on raiding and prosecuting pot growers.

Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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