Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why is Dutch drug use so low?

A fun little anecdote which sums up US drug use.

A number of years ago I was working for a fairly small company where I knew most of the employees. One day I did something rather stupid and the owner of the company (a rather influential Republican businessman, I might add) came by my desk to chew me out for what I did. He said "I should send you down for a drug test!"

I replied, "I'm probably the only employee in this company which would pass a drug test and I know for a fact that includes you."

His eyes widened, he shut up, and walked away.

Such is the prevalence of drug use in the good ol' US of A.

In college, part of the reason I managed such high grades is that I studied drug laws extensively. I found that I could use this extensive knowledge to write papers for English, philosophy, statistics and economics classes. Thus, I could present high quality, informative papers on a subject that I knew fairly well. It's a good strategy and leads to a fairly in-depth knowledge of a given topic. In fact, had I continued my with my plan to become an economist, I would likely have focused on the externalities (positive and negative side-effects) of government regulation of illicit markets (primarily drugs, prostitution, and gambling).

Though many years later means I no longer have the depth of knowledge in this field that I once did, I'm still fascinated by it. It's a bewildering topic because the laws around these areas tend to focus on belief systems rather than reality. When confronting someone with facts contrary to their expectations, usually there was simply denial that the facts presented were true. If they accepted the fact, here's the general pattern of the response:
  1. Acknowledge the fact
  2. Rummage through their world view for something which might explain the fact
  3. Present this "something" as the truth
It's actually an easy thing to do. When we talk about the amount of skilled labor emigrating to the US instead of Europe, I often hear people simply say "that's because the US is a great place to live", ignoring that there are many legal and social issues impacting said emigration.

In the case of drug policy, whenever someone claimed that legalizing or decriminalizing drugs automatically meant that drug use would increase, I would counter by pointing out that Dutch per capita drug use is far lower than the US, as it their crime rate. Some would simply deny this is true. For those Americans who acknowledged it, they would invariably repeat something along the lines of "the Dutch simply don't have the same social tensions we do in America." When I would press them on this, inevitably they would start mentioning racial tensions. Obviously, this raises a lot of questions, even if we ignore that the argument which veers dangerously close to racism. Specifically, even if US racial tensions were greater than those of the Netherlands, what would that have to do with drug use?

As it turns out, Amsterdam, the largest city in the Netherlands and the one where the most drugs are consumed (and still at a rate far less than the US), we find that 45% of Amsterdam residents are ethnic minorities, yet we still find that Amsterdam is a fairly safe city to live in. You can do plenty of research on this and you'll find it confirmed repeatedly. So clearly it's not a given that a mix of different ethnic groups and a different attitude towards drug laws guarantees that crime and drug use will increase.

So why is there less crime here?

I can't prove it because I haven't done extensive research here (back when I was in college, the fledgling Internet wasn't widely available for research), but I suspect that it's related to lack of money going to criminal organizations. It's generally acknowledged that Prohibition in the US was the driving factor in the rise of US organized crime and much organized crime around the world today is financed through the sale of drugs. Obviously the Netherlands does not have the same problem, thus eliminating a powerful financial tool for criminals.

But what about the lower drug use? I suspect it has something to do with being a little more mature about drug policy and not giving in to hysteria. When you can have a rational discussion about a topic rather than shouting "no" at the top of your lungs, you might learn a bit more.

And hey, Portugal's has also decriminalized drug use and it looks like it was a resounding success in controlling per capita drug consumption. The USA will, of course, be rather late to this party, but given that the Drug "War" in the US has become a literal drug war in Mexico and it's spilling over into the US, sooner or later people need to step away from ideology and start asking some hard questions. It's paid off handsomely for the Netherlands.