Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Dutch and the California Pot Vote

Matti, left, and a customer at Anytime.
It is still morning as California is starting to vote  on Proposition 19 for the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.  The Netherlands, with its familiar drug-tolerant environment is an interesting point from which to view this potentially historic legislation.  I like to see how the U.S. is viewed by others, especially when controversial policies are similar.  While the Netherlands is often thought of  as a country where drugs are legal, the reality is more cloudy, with uncertainty about current and future policies.

A Field Poll released last Sunday reported a slip in recent support for passage of the California bill.  49% opposed the proposition compared to 42% in favor.  This is an exact reversal of percentages from September.    Keep in mind that this is California and anything can happen.

Here is a quick look at what the California bill would allow if it passes: “The measure… would make it legal for anyone 21 or older to possess, share or transport up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use and to grow up to 25 square feet per residence or parcel. Cities and counties would be authorized to regulate and tax commercial marijuana production and sales.” <latimes.com>   I’ve seen where a $50 tax per ounce could generate $1.4  billion per year in revenue.  That’s more than I would have guessed.

Things are actually quite different on marijuana policy in the Netherlands than the situation would be in California.  The Dutch use the term, gedogen, meaning that while a substance may not be legal in actual law,  police sometimes will not enforce laws against use as long as it is not disturbing to social well being in general.   News reports over the past couple of years  on Dutch government efforts to maintain it’s pragmatic approach to soft drug policy suggest that the Dutch are scratching their own heads on tolerant policies similar the proposed California measure.

I visited the Alkmaar Police headquarters yesterday to see if an officer would speak about Dutch drug policy and the California vote coming up.   “There’s the typical Dutch approach that it’s ok  to possess in small amounts and be sold in coffeeshops, but the coffeeshops must get it from somewhere and that’s where the law stops,” said a public communications officer who declined to give his name.  He said that marijuana is forbidden to grow because of ‘heavy criminals’ involved in the production, saying that “some common people are being forced to grow marijuana in their homes’’ under pressure from the “heavy criminals who are pulling the strings.” 

When asked what he thought about the California proposition, he followed the pragmatic Dutch approach that I’ve read about, “It’s a personal decision for those who live there.”  If it becomes legal in California, he said, “people who use drugs won’t come into contact with heavier drugs.”  He continued on the positive aspect, “It would be more in the open and it would be a good thing for people to talk about it.”   He warned just after that the market can easily fall into the hands of criminals and that California should be aware of that if the legislation passes.

It seems to me that California has already addressed the growing issue in the proposition and would avoid at least that part of policy headaches.   I asked Julian, 30, an employee at the Wauw coffeeshop in Amsterdam what he thought about Proposition 19 and he said he supported the passage and, “ It depends on people’s patience for legalization to work.  There will be a peak in usage and abuse at first, but that will stabilize.  If the public’s patience can get through that period, it would work out.” By the way,  the Wauw shop is carry-out only and does not serve coffee. 

Matti, 30, a Dutch employee of the Anytime coffeeshop in Alkmaar gave an enthusiastic  endorsement of the California proposal, “Why not?  It’s the state of marijuana already and if it goes through, maybe I’ll go to America one day!”

What about people in the street who don’t work in law enforcement or coffeeshops?   What do they think about the proposal in California?  I stopped several people in a shopping district of Alkmaar to ask.

Bas, 31, a very tall Dutch citizen said he thought it should be legal because “it’s normal here, and makes less aggressive behavior.”

Evelien, 40, a Dutch mother with her toddler child said, “It’s a good idea to make it legal.  When you see it controlled, there’s no problem.”

Petra, 43,  visiting from Germany was quick to point out that drugs are illegal in Germany. “I don’t think it should be legal there, because it won’t help anyone.”

John, 80, had the Dutch pragmatic approach, “I don’t know.  It’s a personal choice.  For some people it’s very good, but for others, you know they could take too much.”

Judith, 37,  was wearing a track suit and thought for a minute on my question.  “It’s a difficult question.  For medication it should be legal, but otherwise should be forbidden because it’s not good for health and can become addicted.”

Ryan,  30, a Dutch corner flower salesman said, “it’s definitely a good idea for America.”  He said that Dutch law takes the “let it go” approach and seems “like in the middle or something.”

Sophie, 28, a musical production artist, said, “I think it’s a good idea.  For younger people its better because they are the biggest group of users and should be in a better legal environment.”   She said about Dutch laws, “I think it’s changing here, but wrong.”

The Anytime in Alkmaar
Yes, things are changing here in the Netherlands, but it’s certainly unclear if a permanent policy change if forming, or if the balance between government and marijuana business is a traditionally fragile and cyclical state.  While coffeeshop staff were happy to speak about California, a measured caution was evident when asked about local governing of their operations.  Proposals to make coffeeshops “Dutch only” and the possibility of non-renewal of licensees are some concerns on the forefront.

It was interesting to meet the owner of the Anytime coffeeshop.   Ricardo,   perhaps in his early fifties originally from Suriname, explained that a campaign by Randolph Hearst in the 1950s was responsible for the global criminalization of marijuana by the United States in the first place.  He said that, “the life of a coffeeshop is up and down and depends on things,” as he gestured in a wave-like motion.    It appears that a sometimes uneasy but functional coexistence between government and his business has been going on for some time.  Even though most of the customers of the Anytime are Dutch, Ricardo did not like the “Dutch-only” government proposal.  “It’s a beginning that could lead to more,” he said.  When asked about growing and the supply of the coffeeshop he said simply, “I’m not allowed to grow it myself.”

Julian, center, with tourists who would be affected by  policy changes.
Julian from the Wauw shop said that new regulations in Amsterdam are often put into place and there’s always fear of license non-renewal based on non-compliance.  An English couple visiting Amsterdam were customers inside the Wauw as I asked Julian what he thought about the “Dutch only” proposal.   He said - speaking during a brisk business of customers -that “Dutch entrepreneurship would send business out to the streets, with people selling things with dangerous additives” to visitors like the couple present.  He declined to answer when I asked about growing and how coffeeshops bought their stock.

While polls suggest that California will continue as it has before proposition 19 came into existence, it  will be interesting to see the aftermath of either outcome.  It does seem that California is approaching the issue more head on than its Dutch counterparts.  The government policies are seeking the same balance even though they are born from slightly different philosophies.  California would be like an American Marijuana Disneyland.  But there are cautious tones here when police and coffeeshop staff speak about each other in efforts to maintain their own balance.

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