On a trip that included a stop in London, the mayor of Denver met with municipal officials to gain information on the Dutch capital’s marijuana policies.
Perceptions about the Dutch capital vary greatly and a comparison of Colorado and Holland may show something different than one might expect.
One common misconception is that marijuana is legal in the country of Holland. In actuality it has been decriminalized, therefore tolerated, in private homes and certain establishments since the 1970s, but has never been legal.
The current laws in Amsterdam are more similar to that of Denver’s in 2012 and 2013 than they are to Colorado’s laws today. Residents of Colorado, over 21 years of age, may purchase up to 1 ounce of marijuana; non-residents one quarter of an ounce. In Amsterdam, residents and non-residents may purchase up to 5 grams in cannabis cafes, although it is not actually legal. In Colorado it is legal to grow up to six plants in an enclosed space. In Amsterdam it is illegal to cultivate any number of marijuana plants, but those caught with five plants or fewer are seldom prosecuted.
In recent years the Dutch government has made legal changes less favorable toward marijuana use. Concerns were on the rise about drug tourism. People visiting the country to use marijuana, some of them causing problems and some of them transporting drugs back across the border.
Consequently laws were passed only tolerating sale by cannabis cafes to residents and citizens of the country. While this change has been welcomed by some city governments — many in border towns most effected by the drug tourism — others have taken issue with the new laws. The mayor of Amsterdam cited more than just economic concerns about the ban. Mayor van der Laan also stated his belief that the 1.5 million drug tourists who travel to the city annually would continue to visit and search out marijuana in non-regulated and more criminal environments. Due to the mayor’s reservations, the new laws are not being enforced despite having been upheld in Dutch federal courts.
The usage rates of marijuana among the Dutch citizens have always been low; much lower, in fact, than rates in the United States. For them, the stance on the subject has always had little to do with personal usage and has been more about controlling a situation. By tolerating the sale of what it classifies as “soft drugs” in certain types of establishments and then confining those establishments to certain neighborhoods, they limit the affected areas while deterring criminal elements.
Another modification in the stance of the country that decriminalized marijuana almost four decades ago is a change in classification of a strong form of marijuana. It was re-classified as a hard drug and therefore removed from the shelves of cannabis cafes.
It is noteworthy that after standing as an example of decriminalization for many years, no other country in the European Union has chosen to follow suit in Holland’s approach to soft drugs.
The reality is that Colorado and Washington’s marijuana laws are unprecedented throughout the world. Never before and nowhere else has it been legal to purchase marijuana for recreational use.
The border towns in Colorado and its neighbors are sparsely populated in comparison to the densely populated areas around Holland. A plan is under consideration to put up billboards warning of the penalties for transporting marijuana across state lines.
It is not yet known what kind of tourism will be sparked by the state’s new laws and there are still many questions that have yet to be answered as to where these tourists will be allowed to legally use marijuana.
Colorado is sailing into uncharted legal waters on the subject of marijuana. Even if Amsterdam is not an exact paradigm, we would do ourselves a disservice to not gather all information possible. We chose to surge ahead in this endeavor while still having many questions left to be answered, quite possibly a mistake. At this point, it is important for us to define the parameters of this new reality.
While we will most certainly make some missteps, we should do everything we can to avoid them.
Daniel Barela is a freelance journalist, widely published in Europe. His work has run in Austria Today, InMadrid and Screen International.