Legalizing Marijuana: Some Lessons from The Netherlands

Washington State and Colorado legalized the recreational use of marijuana during Tuesday’s election. There are still many legal issues to be sorted out but it pays to ponder what will happen if legalization indeed takes effect. Alex Tabarrok may be right that this will simply become a new norm and that “In the future people will be shocked that we arrested millions for marijuana use.” Indeed, although I am no marijuana user, I hope he is right as a matter of public policy. Nevertheless,  the Dutch example should give some pause.

The Dutch decriminalized a long time ago. But other countries have not followed. For most Dutch people, the legalization question is not terribly salient.  Marijuana usage in the Netherlands is much lower than in the U.S.  Most neighborhoods are unaffected by coffee shops. Yet, there are small concentrated parts of the country where it matters a lot. Dutch policy attracts vast numbers of drug tourists. How much you will like this drug tourism depends on where you live. In a place like Amsterdam, it attracts tourists who stay for multiple days in the city and who spend money on hotels, food, tulip bulbs, wooden shoes, cheese, and so on. There is an increase in petty crime associated with legalization. Yet, in places like Amsterdam legalization also builds strong entrenched interests in favor.

In border towns like Maastricht or Enschede, it attracts cars filled with young people from France, Germany, and Belgium who smoke a few joints, wreak some havoc, load up their trunks with cannabis, and leave the city. The Dutch government has recently introduced a requirement that marijuana can only be sold to people who have some proof that they reside in the Netherlands. This requirement is enforced only in border towns. Amsterdam and other destination towns continue to resist and it seems like the new government is not going to insist.

I expect similar  patterns of concentrated opposition in Washington state, especially if Oregon does not pass a similar measure (Oregon already allows medical marijuana but rejected legalization of recreational marijuana). The areas around Portland but also the Eastern parts of the state near Idaho can expect a fair bit of undesirable drug traffic. Seattle and co not so much. Indeed, it may gain in value as a destination town. You can expect similar patterns in Colorado. Although there are few high density population areas in the vicinity, you are still going to see some concentration of traffic and trouble near the major highways. Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs and so on may pick up some popularity as destination towns.

It could be that these states (and especially the border areas) are sufficiently sparsely populated that the nuisance of drug tourism is going to be less visible and the political power of those affected less strong than in densely populated The Netherlands. Nevertheless, the Dutch experience suggests that there are some downsides to being a first mover on this front. Policy makers in other countries have pointed to increases in petty crime and localized opposition as an argument against further legalization; thus amplifying the problems for the Netherlands. It may be that the American West harmonizes more quickly but we should think about why this has not happened in Europe.

Note: I accidentally published a slightly different version a few minutes early.


16 Responses to Legalizing Marijuana: Some Lessons from The Netherlands

  1. DC November 8, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    But do the drug tourists cause problems because they are smoking marijuana specifically, or because they also consume alcohol and other, actually criminalised drugs as well? If they were crossing the frontier in large number because alcohol was more available, or cheaper, would anyone propose banning alcohol as a solution to this?

    • Erik Voeten November 8, 2012 at 8:13 am #

      DC: the point of this post is that there are downsides to being the only one legalizing and that these downsides may affect the politics of other states making the same choice. You are correct that a lot of the issues are alcohol/other drug usage related.

    • Jake Haselswerdt November 8, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

      Interstate travel by minors due to differences in alcohol laws was the impetus behind MADD and the across-the-board drinking age of 21. So no, not banning exactly, but more restrictive laws resulted from exactly this sort of border issue.

  2. Josh McCabe November 8, 2012 at 10:16 am #

    Is this petty crime committed by the tourists or is it more along the lines of the locals mugging or picking the pockets of clueless tourists?

    • Grace November 10, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

      Petty crimes committed by tourists.

  3. ArizonaTim November 8, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    Great article, yet another big difference in the cultural and political divide of rural versus urban. I sympathize with the border towns in the Netherlands, they were probably quiet serene places on the weekends. Still, I would have to imagine some petty crime is worth the decrease in murders, assaults, kidnappings, and other major crimes drug traffickers commit.

  4. Tom Veil November 8, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    You’re forgetting one HUGE difference.
    In the Netherlands, it’s really, really easy to spot a drug tourist: they’re the ones that don’t speak Dutch. The Netherlands is struggling with a huge bout of xenophobia right now, and politicians are stoking the flames. In Colorado, on the other hand, it’s not as easy to spot a Kansan or Arizonan who just drove in for a fun weekend, and even when you do spot them, they’re just as American as you, so it’s no big deal.

    • Guilherme November 9, 2012 at 11:46 am #

      I think that xenophobia in the Netherlands is not really aimed at the French or Germans. See Sniderman et al in APSR a few years ago.

  5. anirprof November 8, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    The real answer is that the theoretical legalized markets will not actually happen due to federal pressure. That comes in a couple of forms:

    1. The feds will threaten to arrest and prosecute any public employees involved in creating and running the systems under federal drug trafficking laws. That would include the senior state officials who sign off on regulations, the front-line bureaucrats in the tax office who process the paperwork, the city employees who issue business and zoning permits, etc. This is NOT theoretical. The feds did exactly that to stop Rhode Island from moving ahead with a medical marijuana scheme, for example, and it’s what they did to prevent the city of Oakland, CA from letting commercial-scale grow operations set up shop in Oakland.

    2. Conditionality of highway funds, higher education assistance, medicaid, and other funds. Look at how successful the feds have been in forcing states to shift to the 21yo drinking age, or maintaining 55mph speed limits when that was around. From what my criminal lawyer wife tells me, she there are already a number of federal laws that condition certain types of aid to states on effective anti-drug policies such that the president could use those levers right away, even w/o any new Congressional action.

    3. Federal forfiture — the feds will no doubt lean on any business who facilitate commercial marijuana operations, threatening them with seizure of their property. The most obvious would be landlords renting space or land. But the same laws used to go after the financial operations of drug cartels can and will be used to go after banks that loan money to a pot growing or retailing operation, insurance companies that do business with them, even electric utilities that sell them power despite knowing what their line of business is.

    I’ll be astonished if either of those states has functioning pot markets anytime soon.

    On the border issue, btw, just in case I’m wrong, the geography isn’t quite right. Washington is so far away from other population centers that drug tourists are far more likely to fly to Seattle than to drive to WA from California. And ‘medical’ is so easy to get in CA who would bother? Eastern WA is far, far, far from anywhere, with rugged terrain and frequent highway closures in the winter. The only land border likely to see major ‘tourism’ is near Portland — the border isn’t just near but actually bisects the metro area, with nearly 1/3 of metro Portland’s population living in WA state. Somewhat similar story for CO — from Chicago or LA to the Colorado border is a 15-18 hour drive, so flying to Denver more likely.

  6. Nissl November 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    Anir’s correct about the pressure that the federal government may well apply. Interestingly, there have been a few statements from one of the Washington officials that the DEA hasn’t quite slammed the door in their faces yet. I would suspect that they are going to wait until the public has turned their attention from the election, and perhaps until Holder’s replacement has been appointed. I do wonder how much they are willing to anger a somewhat large purple state. It’s also worth pointing out that CO’s law, which allows personal possession of up to 3 mature plants and one ounce, is likely to result in some liberalization in any event.

  7. Paul November 8, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

    The idea of Colorado Springs as a pot-tourists’ “destination town” made me LOL. I suppose some really uninformed person might wind up there by accident — the name is really appealing — but I have to predict it will be a bad trip.

  8. TonyB November 8, 2012 at 8:38 pm #

    Amsterdam recently rescinded laws prohibiting tourists from their “coffee shops.” If cannabis-seeking tourists created such problems, the Dutch wouldn’t be eager to welcome them.

    What do they know that we don’t (yet) know?

  9. Guilherme November 9, 2012 at 11:50 am #

    it attracts cars filled with young people from France, Germany, and Belgium who smoke a few joints, wreak some havoc…

    Doesn’t sound like marijuana to me!

  10. Chris Green November 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    I’m kind of surprised at the wild predictions of the impact of this law. If you’re not from the area, you have to realize what the status pre-i-502 is in Seattle (the most likely place to attract out of state visitors). Marijuana is openly sold at retail stores all over town. These stores have hours, web sites, inventory, signs, sales tax collection, employees that receive w-2’s, and deliver. There is a daily “marijuana market” at one location in which growers and processors sell their stuff directly to authorized users, including offering free hits to sample the wares. Anyone with $100 and a half hour to spare can get a medical authorization that opens the candy store. In reality, under i-502, things are actually going to be MORE regulated.

  11. natriley November 9, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    A few comments. The idea that you can distinguish the effects of alcohol from marijuana is junkie talk. It attributes to an inert substance mind-control. Alcohol, marijuana, chocolate, exercise transform a person’s mind, but whether it is for good, evil or just an interlude with no important meaning depends on the person and the atmosphere surrounding (consider the effect of the music from a rave or heavy metal music.) Just like exercise it can cause harms.

    Of course there are problems. Human activity causes problems. Consider the automobile or getting in and out of the bath. It is our response to the problems that magnifies or soothes the society.

    The Netherlands like the U.S. has deeply religious people who believe drink and marijuana are poisons. it has other who have fond memories of their bibulous moments. What it does not have is a large number of people who favor arrest and imprisonment. In the United States as the Jarecki documentary “The House I Live In” demonstrates these legal assaults on individual are destroying communities..

    The fact that Dutch parties disapprove of marijuana doesn’t lead them to criminalize the conduct. It titrates the problem by focusing on the behavior of young Germans. This is playing politics. What is also clear is the policy is a test. If it leads to an increase in crime and makes criminals richer, the Dutch are prepared to abandon their opposition to marijuana. The Dutch respect and privacy and personal autonomy.

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