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.


  1. To add to what you mentioned, people have an egoistic incentive (I'd posit that it's an evolutionary thing too) to be right about something (or feel they are right about something). If something is unknown to them, they literally do a cognitive "short-circuit" (as I like to call it) and blurt out the closest thing that they know that might be relevant, which is usually an anecdote or something based on their own personal, trivial experience.

    And that "short-circuit" usually involves the steps you outlined. If they accept the fact and then expand upon it with their own experience, it not only makes them feel that they are being reasonable by accepting the fact, but insightful because they can add to it with their anecdote.

    Few people realize that is a complete and absolute fallacy, and you don't have to study logic and argumentation to realize that a person's personal experiences usually have no bearing on something that happens independently of the person.

    But thinking they have an answer makes them feel good and have control of their world.

    That is why I've cultivated the desire to NOT want to answer something right away. I'd rather research something and then reflect about it. I'm not afraid to say "I don't know" or "this is what it seems to me, but I'm not sure" or "I'll get back to you on that". If I care enough to research something then I'm more knowledgeable and I haven't acted on false beliefs. Or made a complete ass of myself.

  2. One of the things that annoys me most about British politicians is their total inability to have a sensible conversation about drugs policy.

  3. Does the national statistics include drug-tourists? I visited 'Dam some time ago and my experiences with the city ain't so unambiguous. I would estimate around 10-20% of people I encountered looked more or less stoned. And I would guess most of them were not Dutch.

    And though I support more liberal and pragmatic approach on drugs, I would not want the kind of tourist-culture back home what I've seen in Amsterdam. The idea of raising kids around such great number of "less responsible" adults (in the open) gives me shivers.

  4. Knacker, those stats don't include drug tourists. Also, it's my experience that most tourists don't hang out in the areas that locals are hanging out in (particularly when we're talking about Haarlem and other places), so I don't think you were seeing a representative sample. That being said, even in the "tourist" areas, I'd be astonished to meet "10-20% of people" stoned, unless it was a Saturday night in the Red Light District or something like that.

    And I should add that Dutch children are the happiest in Europe and are probably some of the happiest in the world. And it's because of the culture and lifestyle here, not because of "drugs". Given how successful this country is and how happy the children are, they're doing something right.

  5. My only issue with your thesis is the expectation that the US can have a coherent dialogue on a subject. I don't think _that_ is possible due to epidemic levels of belief and faith. Policymakers here pride themselves on ignorance & beliefs that are clearly out of synch with observable, measurable, objective reality.

    Your current argument would simply be met with a quote from the cartoon South Park: "drugs are bad, m'kay?". The tenets of the movie Idiocracy apply here: combat reality with simplistic rhetoric. "It's what plants crave."

    Until the actual war in the War on Drugs starts to affect more than just Mexicans (known by the racists as "illegals" regardless if they're at home or not (never let facts get in the way)), this death and destruction elsewhere will continue to bolster the ignorant opinions that the poor bring problems on themselves and that tremendously bad policy has nothing to do with it.

    Until then, the binary world view of Bad vs. Good will trump the actual solutions to the problems we create for ourselves and others... Like legalising drugs.

  6. @knack: time falling victim to what @winterr said about personal anecdote. You're also falling victim to the "for the children" rhetorical argument, which is poppycock. The US has a higher penetration of drug use already, compared to Holland. Therefore, more drugs are consumed in front of children _already_ in the US. Legalization would decrease crime & ultimately drug use, not to mention violence. Legalise drugs! For the children!

  7. Dutch drug laws are just as screwy.

    It's legal to buy pot.

    It's legal to grow pot (in my gemeente we can have 5 plants per individual).

    It's legal to sell it from a cafe with a license.

    But it's illegal to have a hemp nursery. Meaning, where do those cafe's get their pot? They have to get it illegally from somewhere. That somewhere is lots and lots and lots of hennepkwekkerijen— in attics, closed-off rooms and back yards. Which is completely retarded. Though I know several people who earn the majority of their money (black) doing just this.

    So just the other day someone decided to put a pot plant in the front yard of the local police station.

    Laws are written by legislators and those people obviously have... issues. Like giant breaks in logic.

  8. The illegality of Dutch hemp nurseries seems prudent. Legal hemp nurseries could trigger an American military response.