Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America (2016)
The International Experience
In almost every area of public and social policy, Americans will cite another country’s policies and experience in support of their position. This is and has been true in everything from education reform, gun control laws, and the death penalty, to the sexual mores of our political leaders. It is no less true of the debate over drugs and, particularly, marijuana. However, frequently the examples from other countries are given incompletely or, worse, selectively.
Of course, very few serious social scientists believe that what one country does (especially on another continent) can be easily imported to another country, given vast differences in culture, family structure, socioeconomic factors, and other differences among populations. Rarely does a discussion of marijuana policy take place without someone’s pointing to experiences in other countries, particularly the Netherlands or Portugal. While there is no shortage of argument regarding those countries’ lax policies, we believe a more complete picture needs to be drawn. Experiences with those policies abroad have not, on closer examination, been all that benign. If anything, they are greater reason for caution.
Marijuana in the Netherlands
Take the Netherlands, for example. The conventional wisdom about that country is that marijuana is legal there and there are few problems… or at least fewer of the problems we in America have with addiction, teen abuse, and unjust incarceration. That conventional wisdom is almost all wrong. While the Netherlands may have some of the least restrictive marijuana laws in Europe, the substance still is not legal. Since the 1970s marijuana possession in the Netherlands has been illegal, but tolerated up to a point. The government prosecutes those who violate the toleration policy. That policy, literally called the “Policy of Tolerance,” allows individuals over the age of eighteen to possess up to five grams of marijuana in public and thirty grams in private. One may not own more than five marijuana plants.1
Over the past two years, the Netherlands have tried to put that genie back in the bottle and backtrack on this “tolerance.” Ironically, the Netherlands is backtracking on its lax marijuana policies just as we are liberalizing ours here in the United States. One problem is the number of “drug tourists” coming into the Netherlands to buy and smoke marijuana. It should be pointed out that it is not just those from other countries who have created problems in the Netherlands. The claim that the Dutch marijuana laws have not affected the teen population there is demonstrably incorrect.
The THC levels of marijuana have increased in the Netherlands, as they have in the United States and elsewhere. The increased THC levels have wrought additional problems. There are now special rehabilitation clinics in the Netherlands, aimed at treating teen marijuana addiction. According to a 2009 survey, those centers have increased fourfold since 2002. As one youth worker told Radio Netherlands Worldwide:
Some of the problem cases smoked their first joint at age nine, in the school playground… The majority of cannabis users are taking the drug for a reason, as a sort of self-medication to fall asleep easily, to forget misery or quarrels in the family, or problems at school. It’s no longer innocent. When those kids are received into the clinic, they are often suffering from psychosocial problems.2
Additionally, since 2011, the Dutch government has been working to classify higher-THC marijuana with other, harder drugs. According to the Economic Affairs Minister of the Netherlands, weed containing more than 15 percent of its main active chemical, THC, is so much stronger than what was common a generation ago that it should be considered a different drug entirely. The high potency weed has “played a role in increasing public health damage.”3
The other canard about the Netherlands policy is that there is decreased use as a result of liberalized rules. It is simply untrue that the Netherlands has a far lower rate of use than the United States among its teen population. A 2010 Rand study found that “the U.S. rate exceeds the Dutch rate, but they are fairly close—indeed roughly equivalent within sampling and measurement error. Second, both the U.S. and the Netherlands rank high relative to most other nations.”4 In other words, while there is a teen marijuana use problem here in America, there is just about the same usage in the Netherlands. Moreover, there is more use or abuse in the Netherlands than there is in a range of other European countries, including, but not limited to, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Hungary, Poland, and Italy.5 Finally, one other interesting note on the tolerance of the Netherlands from the Rand study: compared to other European nations, “Dutch students do indeed rank higher for lifetime prevalence of cannabis than for tobacco use, getting drunk, or use of other illicit drugs.”6
As for the drug tourism problem the Netherlands created through their tolerance policy, it is both interesting and telling that one of the ways the Dutch are trying to crack down on it is by closing marijuana “coffee shops” that are deemed too close to the nation’s schools. Were school-age use and abuse not a problem, this would not be a necessary solution any more than it would have been necessary to ban the use of Joe Camel in cigarette advertising, or to limit tobacco advertising to areas outside of school zones. The Netherlands are well ahead of the United States in understanding the pressure on children of nearby marketing of marijuana.
The Netherlands’ new policy is national, but it is enforced at the local level. Thus, in Amsterdam, foreigners can still go to the marijuana “coffee shops,” but Amsterdam has closed those shops near school campuses, and the mayor recently won court permission to close some twenty-six of the city’s seventy-six “coffee shops” due to his concern over their confluence with the city’s brothels (which he also is trying to close) and “crime.”7 The city of Maastricht is taking full advantage of the new, stricter laws, and not allowing noncitizens to purchase marijuana in the shops, many of which they also have closed.8 Far from the Netherlands being an innocent experiment or a successful one, which actually reduced use, the latest United Nations report on international narcotics found that in the Netherlands, “illicit cannabis production has been estimated to be increasing since 2008, with the main destinations reported to be Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries.”9
Drugs and Portugal
Portugal decriminalized personal drug use in 2001, and was the first country to officially do so. A long and interesting profile was done on Portugal and its experience with decriminalization in the New Yorker a decade later, in 2011. The reporter found that “serious drug use is down… the burden on the criminal justice system has eased; the number of people seeking treatment has grown.”10 The article lists other positives as well, such as a reduction in infectious diseases. However, is it an unambiguously good sign that more people are seeking treatment? Does this not indicate that more people are experiencing serious adverse consequences of drug use?
Ironically, the reporter for the New Yorker missed the main part of his own story, as he profiled one heroin addict (“Miranda”) as an example of a beneficiary of the law. It is worth pointing out what the New Yorker finds a positive effect of the Portuguese law:
With a stable family, a regular dealer, and his spot in the parking lot, Miranda’s life has become orderly, almost routine. “This is because of the law,” he said. “We are not hunted or scared or looked upon as criminals,” he added, referring to the country’s addicts. “And that has made it possible to live and to breathe.” I asked if he had ever tried to overcome his addiction. He shrugged. “I guess I should,” he said. “I know I should. But I’m not sure I can, and it isn’t really necessary. I am lucky to live in a society that has accepted the fact that drugs and addiction are part of life.”11
This, sadly, is the “positive,” the “benefit” of decriminalization—“a regular dealer,” in a society where “drugs and addiction are part of life,” and with no incentive to believe it necessary to overcome his addiction. Of course, once a crime is decriminalized, there will be lower crime statistics. In the end, is it a success when drugs and addiction are a routine part of life? Not every expert in Portugal is on board with decriminalization, as the New Yorker profile is honest enough to reveal. A prominent director of a well-known rehab center in Lisbon says of Portugal’s law decriminalizing drug possession and use, “This law takes away all pressure to stop using drugs… Nobody stops without pressure. That’s not the way humans are built… [A]re we not simply creating a society that is completely socially dependent?” Countries, states, and cities that have decriminalized are often a tale of two or more countries, states, and cities. Portugal is, after all, not the be-all and end-all of perfection: as the 2013 crime report on Portugal by the US Department of State finds, “Portugal continues to see a gradual rise in a majority of its crime categories, including violent offenses.” Beyond this experiment in Portugal, other European countries are finding problems, as they have with the Netherlands. The Department of State report further reveals an analogue to the problem Colorado has created for other states in America: “Portugal continues to be a gateway for drugs entering Europe, particularly from South America and western Africa.”12
Not surprisingly, there is the war over statistics. For example, the most current study that proponents of Portugal’s policy point to does show declining use of drugs, from marijuana to cocaine, in certain age groups. However, it seems conveniently to draw the line at arbitrary ages to achieve that statistical significance. For example, as a recent White House study on Portugal’s drug policy and statistics found:
As “proof” of drug legalization’s success, the [Cato] report trumpets a decline in the rate of illicit drug usage among 15-to 19-year-olds from 2001 to 2007, while ignoring increased rates in the 15-24 age group and an even greater increase in the 20-24 population over the same period.”13
Additionally, the White House found the following:
Statistics compiled by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) indicate that between 2001 and 2007, lifetime prevalence rates for cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines, ecstasy, and LSD have risen for the Portuguese general population (ages 15-64) and for the 15-34 age group. Past-month prevalence figures show increases from 2001 to 2007 in cocaine and LSD use in the Portuguese general population as well as increases in cannabis, cocaine, and amphetamine use in the 15-34 age group. Drug-induced deaths, which decreased in Portugal from 369 in 1999 to 152 in 2003, climbed to 314 in 2007—a number significantly higher than the 280 deaths recorded when decriminalization started in 2001.14
These kinds of numbers led Dr. Manuel Pinto Coelho, President of the Association for a Drug Free Portugal, to say “Decriminalisation in Portugal was not a blessing. Decriminalisation didn’t help us.”15
Legalization of Marijuana in Uruguay
On this side of the Atlantic, the country American proponents of liberalized marijuana laws like to point to is Uruguay. Again, we restate our general reservation about attempting to import different countries’ laws into America, based on a variety of differences. As criminology professor Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland put it when asked about whether we should adopt the Portugal model, “Portugal is a small country and the cyclical nature of drug epidemics—which tends to occur no matter what policies are in place—may account for the declines in heroin use and deaths.” The reality of Uruguay and its marijuana laws does not lead us to rethink our conclusions. If anything, it reinforces them.
At the end of 2013, Uruguay legalized the production, consumption, and sale of marijuana. As of this writing, it is too early to have many reliable statistics on how Uruguay (population 3.3 million) is faring with this experiment, but we do see several problems on the horizon. Our prediction is that things will unravel from optimism to regret in fairly short order.
First, one of the justifications for the law in Uruguay was to seek investment for the production and experimentation with medical marijuana and pharmaceutical companies. That hope seems to have been misplaced:
Uruguay’s marijuana law has created a stir among some investors, including well known names in the medical marijuana industry in Canada and Europe… An executive of one medical marijuana producer, who asked that he and his company remain unnamed for regulatory reasons, said entrepreneurs had approached the company with the idea of working together in Uruguay. But he expressed concern that Uruguay is lumping recreational and medical cannabis under the same law, risking the reputations of medical marijuana research companies.16
Another concern is that, unlike in the Netherlands or Portugal, the new law in Uruguay does not make any provisions for treatment, or what has become known as “harm reduction.” Raymond Yans, outgoing president of the United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board, has stated that the Uruguayan law, and debate leading up to it, have ignored “the scientific health problems related to marijuana” and that the new legislation “will not protect young people, but rather have the perverse effect of encouraging early experimentation, lowering the age of first use, and thus contributing to… earlier onset of addiction and other disorders.”17
We shall see what becomes of Uruguay and the rest of South America as a result of its decision. Already Uruguay’s neighbor to the north is worried. The president of Brazil voiced her concerns to the Uruguayan president, and Brazil is beginning “to step up its controls of people and luggage, should the predictions come true of rising numbers of passengers travelling to and from Uruguay.”18
The Legalization Debate in Other Countries
Beyond those countries, other countries’ experiences are relevant to the legalization debate, as well. France, the country most sophisticates point to in comparisons to the United States with its restrictive morals, has never legalized or decriminalized marijuana. This past year, for the first time in France’s history, a member of parliament (from the Green Party) proposed a bill to legalize marijuana in France. Interestingly, that member of parliament took her cues from the United States, saying,
The fact that we proposed the law now is related to what’s happening in the United States… If the law has changed in Washington and Colorado, we felt we had to open the debate now. Prohibition is useless.
And American President Barack Obama’s statement that marijuana is not any more dangerous than alcohol, that also made us realize it’s time.19
A French lawmaker proposed legalizing marijuana for the first time ever because of the American movement in that direction and comments made by the President of the United States. However, marijuana remains illegal in France.
Germany is a different story. While possessing and consuming marijuana is officially illegal in Germany, a “small amount” is tolerated. That amount varies by state or region in Germany.20 Interesting to us is the German polling that shows over two-thirds of German citizens oppose the legalization of marijuana.21 That is a much greater percentage than in America where, in most polls, the majority is now in favor of legalization.
Two countries that used to receive a lot of attention regarding their drug laws and problems, but are not discussed much anymore, are Singapore and Colombia. The drug laws in Singapore (where penalties for marijuana possession can range from caning to lifetime imprisonment) are, obviously, too draconian to ever even consider. Yet they do, in theory at least, prove one point… or disprove one: “you simply cannot successfully outlaw drugs.” Yes, you can. Very tough laws on drugs and enforcement of those laws can and do lead to less drug use. In Singapore, 0.005 percent of the population uses marijuana.22 Mexico is now seen in the same way we used to view Colombia. In the 1980s drug cartels practically ran and nearly ruined Colombia. At the time of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s death, in 1993, the murder rate in Medellín was the highest in the world. Just last year Medellín registered its lowest murder rate in three decades.23
In many ways Colombia is not an apposite example, given that there are a great many differences between the United States and Colombia, and that the drug most at issue there in the eighties was cocaine. Still, there are some lessons to draw from the Colombia experience: when a society sees enough wreckage from drug dealers and abusers, it can indeed roll up its sleeves, take on an entrenched drug organization (or several), and reverse its course both politically and culturally. The US Special Forces, aiding the Colombia military, also were a critical player in Colombia’s turnaround from a crime-ridden danger zone to which no sane American would ever travel, to a resort country to which travel and style magazines throughout America recommend vacations. Our main issue today is not cocaine, but marijuana. While we do not support the use of the US military to enforce our drug laws (except, in some cases, at the border), we do believe that when a country gets serious, it can reduce its drug habit.
While today Mexico is not a failed state, it certainly is close. It is legal to carry up to five grams of marijuana in Mexico, and anything more is illegal. There is no medical marijuana law in Mexico either. Even the liberal president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, remains opposed to legalization, or did until now. Recently President Peña Nieto told Reuters: “I repeat, I’m not in favor of legalization, this is a personal conviction. But we can’t continue on this road of inconsistency between the legalization we’ve had in some places, particularly in the most important consumer market, the United States, and in Mexico where we continue to criminalize production of marijuana.” Peña Nieto is being pressured to follow the United States’s—particularly Washington’s and Colorado’s—lead. He states in the interview that it is ultimately impossible for the United States and Mexico to have different drug laws. He is correct.
We have discussed how further legalization in the United States will not radically diminish the work of the drug cartels operating in Mexico or the United States. Indeed, there has been zero decline in black market marijuana growth and production in Colorado by drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) since the state legalized the drug.24 The DTOs still control roughly 65 percent of the black market marijuana operations in the US forests of Colorado.25
Some point out that the cartels in Mexico are no longer planting as much marijuana as they used to because of the recent years of legalization in the United States, but they are not exactly letting their land sit fallow. They are replacing their marijuana with poppies to supply the United States with more heroin.26 The unfortunate truth about the cartels is that they are now vastly sophisticated corporate networks involved in all kinds of black markets for both legal and illegal substances, including coal, limes, avocados, and bootlegged movies.27 It is interesting that we have yet to hear anyone in Hollywood suggest that we decriminalize the bootlegging of movies in order to starve the cartels of the millions of dollars they make on that black market. What Mexico needs is a Colombia moment, wherein brave citizens, communities, and armies say, “Enough!” and take their country back. Instead it is getting encouragement to go in the other direction—that of making the illegal legal—from, of all places, the United States.
Great Britain’s Experience with Marijuana Liberalization
The UK is a study in misjudging the consequences of lowering the category of offense for marijuana possession, while marijuana growers are at the same time raising its potency. It is also a study in how difficult it is to put the decriminalization and legalization genie (or smoke) back into the bottle.
Great Britain has tried to reverse course after lowering the criminal classification of marijuana. An editorial from 2007 in London’s center-left Independent newspaper took a stance in favor of lowering Britain’s classification of marijuana, but experience changed its view. Titled “Cannabis: An Apology,” its article said in part,
In 1997, this newspaper launched a campaign to decriminalise the drug. If only we had known then what we can reveal today.
Record numbers of teenagers are requiring drug treatment as a result of smoking skunk, the highly potent cannabis strain that is 25 times stronger than resin sold a decade ago. More than 22,000 people were treated last year for cannabis addiction—and almost half of those affected were under 18. With doctors and drugs experts warning that skunk can be as damaging as cocaine and heroin, leading to mental health problems and psychosis for thousands of teenagers, The Independent on Sunday has today reversed its landmark campaign for cannabis use to be decriminalised…
The editorial continues:
Professor Colin Blakemore, chief of the Medical Research Council, who backed our original campaign for cannabis to be decriminalised, has also reconsidered.
He said: “The link between cannabis and psychosis is quite clear now; it wasn’t 10 years ago.”
Many medical specialists agree that the debate has changed. Robin Murray, professor of psychiatry at London’s Institute of Psychiatry, estimates that at least 25,000 of the 250,000 schizophrenics in the UK could have avoided the illness if they had not used cannabis… “Society has seriously underestimated how dangerous cannabis really is,” said Professor Neil McKeganey, from Glasgow University’s Centre for Drug Misuse Research. 28
As the editorial makes clear, efforts to decriminalize marijuana can result in harms that cause many to rethink their earlier support for it.
The UN Is Concerned About US Violations of Drug Control Conventions
Despite a generalized relaxing of drug restrictions and enforcement throughout the world, the latest report from the United Nations describes growing international drug problems. A few selections:
In Africa, there has been a sizeable increase in the trafficking of opiates through East Africa and cocaine in North and East Africa, as well as a sizeable increase in the illicit manufacture and trafficking of methamphetamine in the region; abuse of opioids, cannabis, amphetamine-type stimulants and cocaine is also increasing.
Central America and the Caribbean continue to be affected by drug trafficking and high levels of drug-related violence. The region remains a significant transit route for cocaine destined for North America and Europe. Large-scale illicit methamphetamine manufacture is a cause for serious concern.
Unprecedented numbers and varieties of new psychoactive substances have been reported in Europe, and their abuse continues to grow.
Methamphetamine manufacture appears to be spreading to new locations in Europe.29
The United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board is unhappy with the United States: “Use of cannabis in some states of the United States of America has not yet been adequately addressed by the federal Government in a manner consistent with the provisions of the drug control Conventions.”30 In other words, while the UN is trying to battle drug abuse and the failure of states throughout the world to eliminate narcotics and trafficking, the United States, rather than showing the way, is undermining the effort. In the meantime, looking at Colorado’s medical marijuana experiment, the United Nations report found: “Emerging data from the State of Colorado of the United States suggest that since the introduction of a widely commercialized ‘medical’ cannabis programme (poorly implemented and not in conformity with the 1961 Convention), car accidents involving drivers testing positive for cannabis, adolescent cannabis-related treatment admissions and drug tests revealing cannabis use have all increased.”31
In sum, it is simply incorrect to say the national or international tide of laxity in enforcing marijuana laws, be it through decriminalization or legalization, has been met with unbridled success or, for that matter, approval by the experts. If anything, the mature judgment has been, and is, to rethink such policies. We predict Uruguay will soon find that out, too.