The New York Times, August 26, 2006
© Copyright 2006 New York Times. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


The Czars' Reefer Madness

John Tierney

Arjan Roskam, the creator of the award-winning marijuana blend named "Arjan's Haze," has dozens of pictures of celebrity visitors on the wall of his coffee shop in Amsterdam. He's got Eminem, Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys, Mike Tyson - but so far, unfortunately, not a single White House drug czar.

The czars have preferred to criticize from afar. In the past, they've called Dutch drug policy "an unmitigated disaster," bemoaning Amsterdam's "stoned zombies" and its streets cluttered with "junkies." Anti-pot passion has only increased in the Bush administration, which has made it a priority to combat marijuana.

More than half a million Americans are arrested annually for possessing it. The Bush administration can't even abide it being used for medical purposes by the terminally ill. Why risk having any of it fall into the hands of young people who could turn into potheads, crack addicts and junkies?

But if America's drug warriors came here, they would learn something even if they didn't sample any of the dozens of varieties of marijuana sold legally in specially licensed coffee shops. They could see that the patrons puffing on joints generally don't look any more zombielike than the crowd at an American bar - or, for that matter, a Congressional subcommittee listening to a lecture on the evils of marijuana.

And if they talked to Peter Cohen, a Dutch researcher who has been studying drug use for a quarter-century, they would discover something even more disorienting. Even though marijuana has been widely available since the 1970's, enough to corrupt a couple of generations, the Netherlands has not succumbed to reefer madness.

The Dutch generally use drugs less than Americans do, according to national surveys in both countries (and these surveys might understate Americans' drug usage, since respondents are less likely to admit illegal behavior). More Americans than Dutch reported having tried marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Among teenagers who'd tried marijuana, Americans were more likely to be regular users.

In a comparison of Amsterdam with another liberal port city, San Francisco, Cohen and other researchers found that people in San Francisco were nearly twice as likely to have tried marijuana. Cohen isn't sure exactly what cultural and economic factors account for the different usage patterns in America and the Netherlands, but he's confident he can rule out one explanation.

"Drug policy is irrelevant," says Cohen, the former director of the Center for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam. It's quite logical, he says, to theorize that outlawing drugs would have an impact, but experience shows otherwise, both in America and in some European countries with stricter laws than the Netherlands but no less drug use.

The good news about drugs, Cohen says, is that the differences among countries aren't all that important - levels of addiction are generally low in America as well as in Europe. The bad news is that the occasional drug fad get hyped into a crisis that leads to bad laws.

"Prohibition does not reduce drug use, but it does have other impacts," he says. "It takes up an enormous amount of police time and generates large possibilities for criminal income."

In the Netherlands, that income goes instead to coffee-shop owners and to the government, which exacts heavy taxes. It also imposes strict regulations on what goes on in the coffee shop, including who can be served (no minors) and how much can be sold (five grams to a customer). Any unruly behavior or public disturbances can quickly close down a shop.

To avoid problems at the Green House, Roskam has closed-circuit cameras and a staff that urges novices to stick with small doses, and to protect their lungs by taking hits from a vaporizer. Unlike street buyers in America, customers know exactly what strength they're getting, which is especially useful for the hundreds of people with multiple sclerosis and other ailments who use his marijuana medicinally.

Roskam sneers at the street products in the United States, which he considers overpriced and badly blended. But he acknowledges there's one feature in the American market he can't compete with.

"Drugs are just less interesting here," he said. "One of my best friends here never smoked cannabis, never wanted to even try my products. Then when she was 32 she went to America on holiday and smoked for the first time. I asked her why, and she said: 'It was more fun over there. It was illegal.' "