Between now and Aug. 2, 2007, the actual anniversary of the Marijuana Tax Act, we're read plenty more stories about this country's pot prohibition. Few, however, are likely to be as enlightening as this one from the Philadelphia Inquirer. The newspaper says the Dutch are taking a sober look at their confusing stance on marijuana.
Paul Wilhelm speaks about marijuana the way a vintner might discuss wine. He talks of aroma, taste and texture, of flowering periods, of the pros and cons of hydroponic cultivation. Wilhelm's connoisseurship might earn him a long prison sentence in the United States, but here in the Netherlands, he's just another taxpaying businessman. He owns a long-established pot emporium - the Dutch call them "coffee shops" - where customers can sidle up to the bar, peruse a detailed menu, and choose from 22 variations of fragrant marijuana and 18 types of potent hash.
Business got even better after Wilhelm's shop, the Dampkring, was featured in 2004 in the film Ocean's Twelve.
And yet life is not as simple for Wilhelm as it is for the pub owner down the street, thanks to the contradictory nature of Holland's famously liberal drug laws. Though the business is duly licensed and regulated, to run it properly he is forced to flout the law on a daily basis. While the Netherlands allows the sale of small amounts of marijuana in coffee shops, it is still illegal to grow marijuana, store it, and transport it in the kind of quantities that any popular shop requires.
Last month, the Dutch parliament began debating a proposal to change that by launching a pilot project to regulate marijuana growing. It was the brainchild of the mayor of Maastricht, a city near the German and Belgian borders that is plagued by gangs of smugglers. Proponents argue that legalizing growing will drive out most of the criminal element and boost responsible purveyors.
"The current policy is schizophrenic," Wilhelm said. "Under the rules, we can only keep 500 grams in the shop at any one time, so that means I have to have more delivered every few hours. And if the delivery guy gets stopped, they take everything, and he gets arrested."
For years, that odd state of affairs seemed to work well, because it allowed the Dutch to tolerate marijuana without having to risk the opprobrium that would come from legalizing it. But organized crime has come to play an increasing role in production, the government has found.
A majority in parliament has come out in favor of the bill to decriminalize growing, reflecting widespread Dutch comfort with a liberal marijuana policy. But the ruling Christian Democratic Party, which has increasingly tightened the rules on coffee shops, opposes it. Analysts expect the government to block implementation even if the measure passes.
But the real eye-openers come deeper in, as the Inquirer reports this fact that betrays the notion that legalization leads to rampant pot use:
Indeed, 30 years after the Netherlands began allowing open marijuana sales, only about 3 percent of the Dutch population - or 408,000 people - use marijuana in a given year, compared with 8.6 percent - or 25.5 million - Americans, according to the most authoritative surveys by both governments.
A study of FBI data released last year by a Washington-based think tank, the Sentencing Project, found that between 1992 and 2002, marijuana arrests rose from 28 percent of all drug arrests to 45 percent, while the proportion of heroin and cocaine cases dropped from 55 percent of all drug arrests to less than 30 percent.