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Legislative Options for Cannabis - Australian Government

Chapter 4.



Today it is possible to openly buy and use cannabis in a number of coffee shops in Amsterdam and other regional centres. Most of these coffee shops do not sell any other drugs and many do not even sell alcohol. However, the public consumption of cannabis has been subject to criticism from other countries, who seem to equate public consumption with increased use. Downes (1988) has claimed that the image of The Netherlands portrayed in the international media is one of 'a blinkered liberalism belatedly struggling to cope with the results of its own permissiveness' and cites an example of a British journalist who wrote in the Sunday Times that 'Amsterdam has a long history of free-thinking and tolerating most things except law and order ... But the city's tolerance has been worn thin by crime, drug abuse and militant squatters' ([38]Downes 1988, p123).

Unsurprisingly, Dutch commentators do not subscribe to the view that their society is on the brink of collapse. They argue that the 'hash cafes' have been integrated as normal urban facilities and do not pose a threat to public order ([39]Leuw 1991). The point has also been made that visible drug use only signals failure if maintaining an image of a drug-free society is an aim of drug policy (Leuw 1991). In contrast, the Dutch, who aim to prevent drug users from being marginalised, may see visible drug use as a sign of success.

Despite the impression presented in the international media, most studies suggest that the policies implemented in The Netherlands have not resulted in any significant increase in drug use or changes in patterns of use ([40]Engelsmann 1989; Wijingaart 1988a cited in [41]Wardlaw 1992, p23). A recent study combined the results of over 20 Dutch studies that examined the percentage of the population who had 'ever used' cannabis and compared them with data from Norway, Sweden and the USA. The period from 1970 to 1988 was examined and the authors concluded that:

The results of the time analysis show that the prevalence of cannabis use since 1970 decreased, whereas the policy became more tolerant. Since 1979 a slight increase in the use of cannabis can be observed. A comparison with data from other countries with a more restrictive policy reveals that the use of cannabis in The Netherlands is on the same level as in Sweden and Norway (around 10-15 per cent), but far lower than that in the US (exceeding 50 per cent). However the downward trend in these three countries since 1984 did not occur in The Netherlands ([42]Driesen, van Dam & Olsen 1989, p11 cited in Leuw 1991).

The savings made to law enforcement and criminal justice budgets of not processing large numbers of cannabis offenders are substantial and should be seen as one of the primary benefits of the Dutch approach to drug policy. In addition, the cannabis market and distribution system is free from violence ([43]van Vliet 1990).

It has also been argued that the Dutch approach has led to safer patterns of cannabis use. First, the fact that users of cannabis do not seem to turn to other more dangerous drugs is used as evidence that the policy of the separation of drug markets is working ([44]van Vliet 1990). [45]Cohen (1988) argues that Dutch cannabis users, unlike their counterparts in the USA, are not likely to ingest the herbicide paraquat in the cannabis that they consume, and are also more likely to consume the drug in a safer way because the sale of drug paraphernalia such as water pipes is legal in The Netherlands (Cohen 1988). Cohen has also argued that 'the knowledge of how to regulate cannabis use has become an inconspicuous part of local Dutch youth culture because the development of drug use rules was not pushed out of the mainstream and into deviant sub cultures' (Cohen 1988, p24).

In terms of the goals that Dutch policy makers identified, drug policy in The Netherlands has been moderately successful. However, the Dutch approach to drug policy has not been popular internationally: Germany and the USA in particular have been vocal in their opposition. In recent times this has led to the introduction of tougher drug policies with respect to 'hard drugs' ([46]Marshall et al. 1990), however these pressures have not yet had any impact on cannabis policy. Indeed, it has been speculated that Dutch cannabis policy is unlikely to change as a result of international pressure ([47]Wardlaw 1992).

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