Peter Moskos -- From Amsterdam, lessons on controlling drugs

By Peter Moskos
Sunday, October 25, 2009

When an indoor public smoking ban took effect in the Netherlands in the summer of 2008, the worry wasn't so much for the one-third of Dutch adults who smoke cigarettes. Bars and restaurants went smoke-free without much problem.

A more intriguing concern was for the effect on the uniquely Dutch institution of marijuana-selling "coffee shops." If a place calls itself a coffee shop, that means three things: One, there is marijuana and hash for sale; two, for the price of a coffee, you may sit and smoke your own; and three, you will not be arrested.

The smoking ban does not apply to marijuana, but Dutch who smoke it almost always mix it with tobacco. So while the pot is still okay, the tobacco in the joint isn't. Larger coffee shops have built walls and separate smoking rooms. Smaller shops make people smoke outside or hope the authorities will simply tolerate a little illegal tobacco along with the marijuana.

The Dutch classify marijuana as a "soft drug," which means that, like alcohol and tobacco, it is best regulated through controlled distribution. "Hard drugs," such as cocaine and heroin, remain illegal. But personal drug use is more a health matter than an arrestable offense.

Even the Amsterdam police want to keep the coffee shops open. "Why push drug use underground?" asked Christian Koers, the police chief responsible for Amesterdam's red-light district. "Then you cannot control it, and it becomes more popular and more dangerous. "

This idea -- that drugs are both enjoyable and dangerous and thus better regulated than prohibited by government and sold by criminals -- seems common-sense enough, even in America. Until now, the main opposition to a state's right to legalize marijuana has been the federal government. But last week, in a major policy shift, the U.S. Justice Department instructed federal prosecutors not to focus on "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."

In a memo explaining the new guidelines, Deputy Attorney General David Ogden emphasized that the department is not ending the war on drugs. But it's the first time the federal government has paused and taken a small step back. And though the change will affect few, at least in some states doctors and terminal cancer patients should no longer fear federal arrest.

Thirteen U.S. states have already legalized medicinal marijuana in some way, and last week Wisconsin jumped on the bandwagon. "It's pretty hard to say that a doctor actually thinks marijuana would be helpful and the doctor can't prescribe it, whereas [he] could prescribe morphine," said Gov. Jim Doyle. "We prescribe much more dangerous drugs."

Certainly, the legalization of medicinal marijuana has not always been an unalloyed success. Dispensaries don't always make the best neighbors, and Los Angeles is trying to reduce their numbers. But it is nonetheless refreshing to see states and cities debating drug policy and regulation. And as that happens, we should notice how much easier it is to close a licensed store than an illegal drug corner.

Three years before I became a Baltimore police officer in 1999, I started my research with the Amsterdam police. The Dutch approach toward drugs, by and large, works. Without declaring a war, authorities there have managed to lower addiction rates, limit use and save lives. The United States, by contrast, spends $50 billion a year on its war on drugs and leads the world in illegal drug use, with millions of Americans regularly using marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy.

Clearly, what we're doing doesn't work.

There is little violence surrounding the private drug trade between friends, coworkers and family members. The real drug problem, along with addictive heroin and crystal meth, is illegal public dealing. In public drug markets, signs of violence are everywhere: Intimidating groups of youths stand on corners under graffiti memorializing slain friends; addicts roam the streets and squat in vacant buildings; "decent" people stay inside when gunshots ring out in the night.

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