Legalizing Marijuana: Some Lessons from The Netherlands

Washington State and Colorado legalized the recreational use of marijuana during Tuesday’s election. There are still many legal issues to be sorted out but it pays to ponder what will happen if legalization indeed takes effect. Alex Tabarrok may be right that this will simply become a new norm and that “In the future people will be shocked that we arrested millions for marijuana use.” Indeed, although I am no marijuana user, I hope he is right as a matter of public policy. Nevertheless,  the Dutch example should give some pause.

The Dutch decriminalized a long time ago. But other countries have not followed. For most Dutch people, the legalization question is not terribly salient.  Marijuana usage in the Netherlands is much lower than in the U.S.  Most neighborhoods are unaffected by coffee shops. Yet, there are small concentrated parts of the country where it matters a lot. Dutch policy attracts vast numbers of drug tourists. How much you will like this drug tourism depends on where you live. In a place like Amsterdam, it attracts tourists who stay for multiple days in the city and who spend money on hotels, food, tulip bulbs, wooden shoes, cheese, and so on. There is an increase in petty crime associated with legalization. Yet, in places like Amsterdam legalization also builds strong entrenched interests in favor.

In border towns like Maastricht or Enschede, it attracts cars filled with young people from France, Germany, and Belgium who smoke a few joints, wreak some havoc, load up their trunks with cannabis, and leave the city. The Dutch government has recently introduced a requirement that marijuana can only be sold to people who have some proof that they reside in the Netherlands. This requirement is enforced only in border towns. Amsterdam and other destination towns continue to resist and it seems like the new government is not going to insist.

I expect similar  patterns of concentrated opposition in Washington state, especially if Oregon does not pass a similar measure (Oregon already allows medical marijuana but rejected legalization of recreational marijuana). The areas around Portland but also the Eastern parts of the state near Idaho can expect a fair bit of undesirable drug traffic. Seattle and co not so much. Indeed, it may gain in value as a destination town. You can expect similar patterns in Colorado. Although there are few high density population areas in the vicinity, you are still going to see some concentration of traffic and trouble near the major highways. Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs and so on may pick up some popularity as destination towns.

It could be that these states (and especially the border areas) are sufficiently sparsely populated that the nuisance of drug tourism is going to be less visible and the political power of those affected less strong than in densely populated The Netherlands. Nevertheless, the Dutch experience suggests that there are some downsides to being a first mover on this front. Policy makers in other countries have pointed to increases in petty crime and localized opposition as an argument against further legalization; thus amplifying the problems for the Netherlands. It may be that the American West harmonizes more quickly but we should think about why this has not happened in Europe.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.