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If it's on the shelves, it's off the streets

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.

As a police officer, I responded when citizens called 911 to report drug dealing. Those calls didn't tell me much, though, because I already knew the drug corners. And what could I do? When a police car pulls up to a drug corner, the corner pulls back. Dealers, friends, addicts and lookouts walk slowly away.

I didn't chase them. If I did, they'd ditch the drugs. What would I do if I caught them? Charge them with felony running? A smart dealer doesn't hold drugs and money and guns. He's got workers for that. Besides, an anonymous call to police doesn't give the legal "probable cause" needed for a search. So I'd walk up, perhaps frisk for weapons and stand there until "my" corner was clear.

But soon enough I'd have to answer another 911 call for drugs. And when I left, the crew would reconvene. One of my partners put it succinctly: "We can't do anything. Drugs were here before I was born, and they're going to be here after I die. All they pay us to do is herd junkies."

In Amsterdam, the red-light district is the oldest and most notorious neighborhood. Two picturesque canals frame countless small pedestrian alleyways lined with legal prostitutes, bars, porn stores and coffee shops. In 2008, I visited the local police station and asked about the neighborhood's problems. I laughed when I heard that dealers of fake drugs were the biggest police issue -- but it's true. If fake-drug dealers are the worst problem in the red-light district, clearly somebody is doing something right.

In another neighborhood in Amsterdam, a man caught breaking into cars was released pending trial. The arresting officer returned to him, along with his shoelaces and personal property, his heroin and drug tools. I was amazed. The officer admitted he wasn't supposed to do that; heroin is illegal. But the officer had thought it through: "As soon as he runs out of his heroin, he'll break into another car to get money for his next hit."

For the addict, the problem was drugs. But for the police officer, the problem was crime. It made no sense, the officer told me, to take the drugs and hasten the addict's next crime. The addict was not a criminal when he had drugs (beyond possessing them); he was a criminal when he didn't have drugs.

I asked the officer if giving drugs to addicts sends the wrong message. He said his message was simple: "Stop breaking into cars!" With a subtle smirk in my direction, he added, "It is very strange that a country as violent as America is so obsessed with jailing drug addicts." Indeed, Dutch policymakers plan, regulate, fix and pragmatically debate harms and benefits. Police in the Netherlands are not involved in a drug war; they're too busy doing real police work.

The results are telling. In America, 37 percent of adults have tried marijuana; in the Netherlands the figure is 17 percent. Heroin usage rates are three times higher in the United States than in the Netherlands. Crystal meth, so destructive here, is almost nonexistent there. By any standard -- drug usage rates, addiction, homicides, incarceration and dollars spent -- America has lost the war on drugs.

And just as escalating the drug war over the past three decades hasn't caused a decrease in supply and demand, there's no good reason to believe that regulating drugs instead of outlawing them would cause an increase. If it did, why are drug usage rates in the Netherlands lower? People start and stop taking drugs for many different reasons, but the law seems to be pretty low on the list. Ask yourself: Would you shoot up tomorrow if heroin were legal?

Nobody wants a drug free-for-all; but in fact, that's what we already have in many communities. What we need is regulation. Distribution without regulation equals criminals and chaos -- what police see every day on some of our streets. People will buy drugs because they want to get high, and the question is only how and where they will buy them.

History provides some lessons. The 21st Amendment ending Prohibition did not force anybody to drink or any city to license saloons. In 1933, after the failure to ban alcohol, the feds simply got out of the game. Today, they should do the same -- and last week the Justice Department took a very small step in the right direction.

Without federal control, states, cities and counties would be free to bar or regulate drugs as they saw fit. Just as with alcohol and tobacco regulation, one size does not fit all; we would see local solutions to local problems.

Even without federal pressure, most states and cities would undoubtedly start by maintaining the status quo against drugs. That's fine. In these cases, police with or without federal assistance should focus on reducing violence by pushing the drug trade off the streets. An effort to shift the nature of the illegal trade is different than declaring a war on drugs.

Regulating and controlling distribution is far more effective at clearing the corners of drug dealers than any SWAT crackdown. One can easily imagine that in some cities -- San Francisco, Portland and Seattle come to mind -- alternatives to arrest and incarceration could be tried. They could learn from the experience of the Dutch, and we could all learn from their successes and failures.

Regulation is hard work, but it's not a war. And it sure beats herding junkies.

Peter Moskos is an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of "Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District."

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