If anyone in the world has experience with marijuana legalization, it's the Dutch. For nearly 40 years, the limited sale and use of the plant has been effectively legalized — so-called "coffee shops" are allowed to stock and sell small quantities of cannabis to adult buyers.
With four decades of experience to draw from you might assume that the Dutch have some opinions on marijuana legalization that we might learn from. And as it turns out, they do: A survey conducted this past summer found that 70 percent of Netherlands residents support broadening the country's marijuana laws to loosen restrictions on the cultivation of marijuana.
This comports with other surveys in the past few years showing:
- 65 percent of Dutch residents favor completely legalizing the production, sale and consumption of cannabis.
- 61 percent of the Dutch say that limiting "coffee shop" marijuana sales to Netherlands residents only would be a bad idea.
- 57 percent of the Dutch think that allowing the cultivation of up to five cannabis plants for personal use would not be a problem.
These responses were recently compiled and translated by the Transnational Institute, an international nongovernmental organization working on various policy issues. And they're useful to have, because the Netherlands so frequently becomes a political football in ongoing debates over legalization in this country.
Legalization opponents, for instance, point out that in recent years some Dutch municipalities have begun tightening their restrictions on marijuana sales, citing the nuisances brought by tourists seeking legal weed. Proponents of legalization, meanwhile, point to decades of data on marijuana use in the Netherlands showing that the Dutch use pot less often than some of their neighbors, that they're less likely to use marijuana heavily, and that there don't appear to be any indications that legal marijuana is a "gateway" to harder drugs.
The Dutch, of course, have been practicing this sort of drug policy for decades now. Their approach to marijuana falls somewhere between the strict prohibition enforced in most U.S. states, and the full-scale commercial legalization now under consideration in some others. So there are limits to how much you can extrapolate from the Dutch marijuana experience to the American one.
Still, the surveys of Netherlands residents provide a useful barometer of how the public there perceives the success of their marijuana regime. And the data appear to indicate that the public is not only opposed to tighter marijuana laws but would go even further in loosening the current restrictions on the production, sale and use of pot.
When it comes to federal drug policy in the United States, and of updating federal drug laws to allow states more leeway in setting their own, many mainstream politicians have adopted a stance of "wait and see." Hillary Rodham Clinton has repeatedly said she wants to see how things turn out in states like Colorado before changing federal law. On the Republican side, Donald Trump has said similar things.
Waiting for more data to come in may well be prudent. But at the same time, we have to grapple with the continuing negative impacts of current laws — hundreds of thousands of arrests, racial disparities, suppression of research into medical uses, and the loss of considerable tax revenue that legal marijuana could bring in. Four decades of experience in the Netherlands suggest we may not be getting the balance quite right.