A new study published in the journal Addiction earlier this month challenged the United States’ “provincial” drug policy, especially as it relates to youth. The study compared cannabis use among US teens to newly available data on usage rates in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. The results: The Dutch have about 700 adults-only clubs that sell 50 to 150 metric tons of cannabis per year, yet Dutch teens report lower levels of weed usage than youth in the United States.
The author of the study, Robert J. MacCoun, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and Boalt School of Law, shared with Legalization Nation some thoughts on what’s going on:
(Edited for space. Read the full interview online on our Legalization Nation blog.)
Legalization Nation: These numbers show 14 percent of 15-to-16-year-old Dutch kids reporting past-month pot usage, compared to 15.6 percent in the United States. Shouldn’t those numbers be the other way around?
Professor MacCoun: That’s what everyone thought, but a number of papers over the past five years have focused on this new survey data that doesn’t seem to support that idea. There are a couple things to say about this:
The Dutch are pretty strict about not letting minors go in these coffee shops. … Since adults can go into coffee shops, there are fewer street dealers and that reduces the opportunities for teenagers to go buy from someone on the street.
Legalization Nation: What’s going with this statistic: 71.5 percent of US teenagers said it’s very easy to get pot, while in the Netherlands it’s 45.5 percent. That seems way out of the realm of the margin of error.
MacCoun: So that’s a pretty striking finding and I was just as surprised as you were by that because I certainly expected greater perceived availability in the Netherlands. But because it’s been found in more than one survey, I’m inclined to give it some credence.
In the United States, kids have consistently told us that marijuana is easy to obtain and the vast majority of kids at most schools will say that. It’s usually more than 85 percent in a lot of schools saying, “It’s easy to obtain marijuana in my school,” and that’s been true in the United States for several decades, and you just don’t see that in Europe.
Some people want to point to medical marijuana, but it’s not a new story. Marijuana has been readily available long before we had medical marijuana in dispensaries.
Legalization Nation: And American kids are three times more likely to report using other illicit drugs than Dutch kids?
MacCoun: In the United States, we usually think that marijuana is a gateway, that it will increase the appetite for intoxicants, but the Dutch in the Seventies had a very different theory, which was that the gateway is created by contact with hard-drug sellers.
They had this idea: If we can separate the markets and let people who want soft drugs get them without having to go to drug dealers, then we can reduce the gateway, and the data in my paper seem to suggest there’s something to that.
Legalization Nation: How’s the US data you use? I seem to remember RAND questioning some government marijuana stats last year.
MacCoun: I would distinguish [US teen survey data] from … claims about how much drugs are being transported. Those numbers sometimes seem to come out of nowhere. … They’re just not very plausible.
The survey research is actually pretty good. … I also know this from focus groups of teenagers. Once they decide you’re not a cop, they’ll talk your ear off. It’s not perfect, but what’s the alternative? The alternative is to know nothing about what’s going on.
Legalization Nation: Is this an apples-to-oranges study? I think of California let alone America as this extremely heterogeneous place, while Amsterdam comes off as more homogeneous.
MacCoun: You’re right, it is a leap to generalize from the Netherlands to the United States. But as I say in the paper, it’s the only game in town. If you want to understand the effects of alternatives — if we’re talking about legalizing cannabis — you’ve got to go where people have actually experimented with different policies, and so that’s why it’s worthwhile looking at the Dutch system.
Legalization Nation: Your paper seeks to provide “provisional” judgments over “provincial” ones. What provincial notions are you talking about and how might this paper challenge them?
MacCoun: I think the United States is often very provincial in refusing to look at what we can learn from other countries. There’s this kind of notion of American exceptionalism — that we’re different than every other country.
Now, another policy area I’ve been very involved in is the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell issue — analyzing that during the Clinton administration and then in the Obama administration — and a similar issue came up there. People would say, “Don’t tell me what’s going on in the Norwegian army or the Dutch army, or in countries that have nondiscrimination policies. I don’t want to know, because they’re not really a fighting force.”
Eventually it just wasn’t credible to say no other country’s experience is relevant. … In the same way, we should be cautious in looking to other countries and what we can learn from them, but we shouldn’t be so provincial that we just refuse to learn.