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What can the Dutch teach the U.S. about selling pot?

March 22, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Colorado and Washington begin selling legal marijuana, questions remain about the practical process of changing drug policy. NewsHour travels to the Netherlands -- the one nation that's been openly selling pot for over 40 years -- to see what might be in store for the United States. Correspondent William Brangham reports.
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: When you first visit Amsterdam’s famous coffee shops –that’s what all the marijuana shops here are called — the thing you notice is how normal it all seems.

It’s not unlike a quiet café or Starbucks in the U.S.: people, mostly foreign tourists, sitting around, sipping coffee, all the while openly smoking the marijuana they bought right there in the shop.  What could easily get you arrested in most American cities, here, it’s just fine.

MICHAEL VELING: And of course Americans, they love the potent weed.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Michael Veling owns and runs two coffee shops in Amsterdam.  He was one of the original entrepreneurs back in the 1970s when the Netherlands first began allowing the sale of cannabis.

MICHAEL VELING: And this has been going on for more than 40 years now and nobody gives a real s***.  And it hasn’t brought this country down.  I mean, what’s the fuss all about?

The Bulldog, first coffe shop in Amsterdam, Photo Credit: Paul Vreeker

The Bulldog, first coffe shop in Amsterdam, Photo Credit: Paul Vreeker

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  So you might think that buying, selling, smoking and growing small amounts of marijuana is perfectly legal… Well, it’s not.  Tolerance is the key word here. The government tolerates all these activities, and you won’t be arrested or fined or hassled.  The government licenses coffee shops to sell marijuana as long as they follow a strict set of rules:  no one under 18 is allowed to buy (or even set foot in the door)   no advertising (that’s partly why they’re called ‘coffee shops’ and not ‘cannabis shops.’) no alcohol or hard drugs. Customers can buy a maximum of 5 grams of marijuana at a time – that’s about half a cup.   You can take it home, or smoke it in the café. (This is one thing you won’t see in Colorado or Washington – on site smoking)

So… if the United States is heading down this road of allowing recreational use of marijuana, what is the potential harm?

FRANZ TRAUTMANN: We have a drug which is relatively harmless.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Franz Trautmann is a lead researcher at The Trimbos Institute – the Netherlands’ top government-run research group on mental health and addiction. For years he’s been evaluating the effects of different national drug policies.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What about the larger argument that many people in the U.S. feel that when the government does step forward and say, “We’re going to allow the sale of cannabis for recreational use,” that that is a terrible message to young people?

FRANZ TRAUTMANN:  Well, it is a– let’s say, it’s a less terrible message than to say, “We keep alcohol legal and we keep tobacco legal.”  In fact, I’d say alcohol and tobacco; they really cause, in the long run, irreversible health damage. Can be brain damage, liver damage, lung damage. With cannabis, we don’t have overdoses.  We don’t have liver cirrhosis.  We don’t have lung cancer.  We have a drug which is relatively harmless.  It is harmful, partly, but it is relatively harmful—harmless.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Scientists with the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the U.S. point out that marijuana can be damaging:  they estimate that about 9 percent of people who use it will become addicted to it… its harms can be especially pronounced for kids, pregnant women, and those with the potential for mental illness.  But in the Netherlands at least, two of the other big public health fears about loosening marijuana laws haven’t come to pass:

First – according to European Union data, forty years of coffee shops haven’t coincided with a rise in the use of hard drugs like cocaine or heroin.  This is the fear of what’s called the ‘gateway effect’ – where critics argue marijuana users are more likely to move on to harder drugs.

Second, according to the U.N. (among others), Dutch policy hasn’t turned the Dutch into a nation of potheads, either. Only about 6 percent of people in the Netherlands report using marijuana, compared with about 9 percent in France, 11 percent in Spain, and about 15 percent in the U.S.

FRANZ TRAUTMANN: In the Netherlands, if it comes to prevalence of cannabis use in the population, we are not the highest.  France is much higher.  Spain is much higher.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Places that have no coffee shops–

FRANZ TRAUTMANN: –and which are fully repressive also on the user.  I mean, Spain is changing now, but France has been always very repressive.  So you have there higher prevalences than here.  So making it easily accessible doesn’t mean that you get an enormously high prevalence.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Of course, it’s not clear if Americans’ drug use will match the Netherlands – the two countries are different in so many ways:  in size, in culture, in demographics.

And there are aspects of Dutch policy that are causing significant problems … and those problems have prompted a vigorous debate among citizens and politicians alike in the Netherlands about how their coffee shop system should evolve.

Here’s one example:  even though you’re allowed to walk into a coffee shop and buy pot…  no one is allowed to grow large amounts, or sell pot to those coffee shops.  Just listen to coffee shop owner Michael Veling describe this:

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I see over here you have a menu where people can come and make a selection from a variety of different choices of things that you sell.  Where do you get that from?

MICHAEL VELING: I don’t know.  That is the great mystery of the Dutch system.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So you just wake up in the morning and there’s a little delivery that magically appears?

MICHAEL VELING: Magically, for certain.  But officially and also unofficially, I do not have suppliers.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  The Dutch say they always intended to address this bizarre gap in the law… which exists because when the coffee shops were first introduced back in the 70s, there was such widespread criticism from America and from Europe that the Dutch say they were pressured to not go further and regulate their supply chain as well.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So the person who ‘magically’ delivers your supply to your shop, he’s breaking the law?

MICHAEL VELING: Oh, definitely.  And he– if he’s arrested, he’ll go to jail.

ANONYMOUS SUPPLIER: I started as a grower….

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Veling put us in touch with his supplier, who agreed to talk with us as long as we didn’t reveal his identity, or even use his real voice.  He told us he imports some of his marijuana from abroad, but much of it he says is grown domestically in the Netherlands by a network of home-growers — housewives, lawyers and the like.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Do you ever worry that, even though this is considered a fairly tolerant society, that you might be prosecuted for what you do?

ANONYMOUS SUPPLIER: That’s a possibility.  Yes, every day.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Every day?  Doesn’t that get stressful after a while?

ANONYMOUS SUPPLIER: No, you get used to it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  This decision not to regulate the supply chain causes several problems: not only do the Dutch lose their chance to tax that side of the business, but more importantly: it’s allowed an illegal export market to flourish.   A senior police official estimated that 80 percent of the pot grown in the Netherlands gets sent abroad and ends up on the black market.

Another Dutch official said: “We now function as a supplier of drugs for the rest of Europe…we never intended to become one of the major exporters of cannabis to the world.”

Officials in ten major Dutch cities have appealed to the government to finally fix this gap in the law, but nothing’s happened.

Back in the U.S., Colorado and Washington are regulating the entire pot market – how it’s grown, processed, sold and taxed.  Their rules were designed to protect consumers, and to ensure none of that legal pot ends up on the illegal market.  The irony here of course is that the U.S. – which used to criticize Dutch policy – now has two states implementing even more comprehensive policies than the Dutch ever have.

Back in the Netherlands, the Dutch have continued to refine their policy.

They’ve stepped up enforcement of coffee shops. Back in the late 90s, there was a concern about too much leniency towards them so stricter rules were written, and violators closed down.  No new licenses have been issued in almost 20 years.

The Dutch are also tackling the rising potency of pot – (something both Colorado and Washington want to do as well).  Dutch scientists regularly test coffee shop marijuana, and anything over a certain level is considered a hard drug and forbidden for sale.

The Dutch have also had a big national debate about whether ‘drug tourism’ needs to be reined in.

In the small city of Maastricht, which sits on the Netherlands’ southern border with Belgium and Germany, city officials saw an alarming number of foreign visitors crossing into their town with just one destination in mind.

Onno Hoes is the mayor of Maastricht.

ONNO HOES: In the past we had more than two million foreign visitors of the coffee shops.  And you can say of course that’s good for the economy, because when they are here they spend also money to other things.  But the knowledge is they don’t go to other shops.  They don’t go to hotels or restaurants.  They just enter the country, buy it, smoke it in the shop, in the car, go back to the shop for a second part and then go back home.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  For a city of just 120,000 residents – and one whose streets were laid out back  in the Middle Ages – two million visitors snarled traffic and caused a headache for local residents.

Other border-town mayors voiced similar complaints, and so two years ago, new national rules went into effect banning anyone who’s not a legal Dutch resident from buying in the coffee shops.  No more tourists allowed.

The new rules exposed some sharp divisions in the country.  Amsterdam (along with other big, northern cities) said it would never comply with the ban on foreigners.  (It can handle crowds better, plus tourists bring in hundreds of millions in revenue) but Maastricht and other mostly southern border towns welcomed the ban and did comply.

Subsequently, six of Maastricht’s fourteen coffee shops closed down (some for breaking the rules and selling to tourists… several said they just didn’t have enough customers anymore).  By all accounts, the streets are much quieter now, but there was a downside: street drug sales spiked.

ONNO HOES:  I’m very satisfied with the fact that the foreign people aren’t welcome any more in Maasrticht.  So we need a certain period of course to get a new balance. And, again, it’s much safer– much healthier in the city of Maastricht now.  And it’s much more place for the city to develop in an economic way.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  For his part, Amsterdam coffee shop owner Michael Veling hopes that the U.S. doesn’t continue its rapid path towards legalization… he’s worried that might encourage other countries – including his – to follow suit.

Veling says the Netherlands’ odd, quasi-legal, patchwork system serves to keep the price of pot high – and the number of competing coffee shops low – which this one businessman does not want to see changed.

MICHAEL VELING: I’m fearing American policy makers because when cannabis is legalized in this country, I lose my business.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Why is that?

MICHAEL VELING: Well, because it’s a legal product.  So the margins and everything will change dramatically–

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Meaning if everyone can sell it, prices are going to go down, your profits go down–

MICHAEL VELING: Yes.  Of course.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Economics.

MICHAEL VELING: Simple economics.