Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What's up with the hookers and pot?

When you say "Amsterdam", many people think of some drugged-out, sex-crazed city, as suggested by Bill O'Reilly, a topic I mentioned in a previous entry. But is that Amsterdam? Culture means something a hell of a lot different if you actually live somewhere. For Amsterdam, culture for young college types is often "pubs, hookers and pot," for more mature visitors, it's "restaurants, museums and pot," and for residents it's "work, friends, and pot."

If you're sensing a theme, it's deliberate, but honestly, the aspect of Marijuana is completely different on the inside than the outside. Most people in the Netherlands don't smoke pot or do any (illicit) drugs at all. However, it's an inescapable part of the politics and frankly, if you live here, you can't walk around without smelling it periodically. It's omnipresent.

This Is Marijuana
Threat to society?
Photo by Taber Andrew Bain
Here's the big secret, though: while many people outside of the Netherlands are unhappy with our prostitution and drugs, many people inside of the Netherlands are also unhappy with our prostitution and drugs. The difference is that they're more unhappy with the crime associated with outlawing it. Others like to moralize and shake their fingers at the Dutch, but the Dutch have first-hand experience with the before and after and they know which they prefer.

The Dutch are often a rather conservative people. As per their Calvinist background, they tend not to brag, they work hard, they prefer consensus, and they'll accept drugs and prostitution if they think that causes less harm to their society than the alternative. Got that? It's not an emotional thing with them. They're not standing up on a moral high horse and preaching about the evils of these things (well, most aren't). They're simply looking pragmatically at society and asking what works. They're very keen on the concept of harm reduction.

If you've noticed anything at this point, it's that we're not talking about a 24-hour party culture. In fact, the Dutch are largely the opposite of this. It's pragmatism which led to their decisions. And has it worked? Well, the Dutch certainly think so.

Amsterdam Red-Light District at Night - 2
Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District
Photo by Nicholas Doumani
Prostitution is a highly emotional topic and it can be hard to find objective information about it. Most of the information I've read starts looking at prostitution in light of a particular worldview and imagines if it's good or bad. However, the overall situation is extremely complex. I suspect even most die-hard Libertarians would feel uncomfortable with a scantily dressed street walker waiting outside an elementary school hoping to pick up fathers dropping off their children.

Because prostitution is such an emotive topic, I won't cover it further here, but drugs are a touch safer (in terms of discussion). In the Netherlands, rather than having complicated drug classifications that other countries have drawn up, there are simply "List I" and "List II" drugs, colloquially known as "hard" and "soft" drugs. Both groups are illegal, but the latter is "decriminalized" and you generally won't be prosecuted for using them. The distinction between the two groups is simply whether or not there is an "acceptable" risk of physical harm or addiction.

The results of their liberal drug laws are pretty clear-cut: they have a lower consumption of drugs per capita than other European countries. They don't have a lot of drug-related crime and very little "nuisance" associated with drugs. Further, while the US has more prisoners per capita than any country on the planet — a trend which started when Ronald Reagan decided to step up "the war on drugs" — the Netherlands is shutting down prisons for lack of criminals and renting out prisons to Belgium. In fact, I could cite a lot more information, but it's simply too easy to find it for yourself; whatever the Dutch are doing, it works.

Further proof that the Dutch aren't simply pleasure-seeking hedonists is the news that they're considering making "coffee shops" only available for residents and Amsterdam has been trying to scale back the red light district. There is simply no way the Dutch are going to give up their laws in these areas — they're convinced they reduce harm — but they're also going to keep tinkering to try and further reduce harm. It's an astounding pragmatism which I think is a perfect example of Dutch character.
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