The Truth About Legalising Drugs

Efforts to decriminalise are advancing in Europe and with no unified EU policy, the risks of drug tourism and smuggling are real

Top Stories | Edward Steen, Robin Tim Wels | May 2013

Three years after decriminalisation, Prague is slowly but surely replacing Amsterdam as the mecca of Europe’s drug scene.

"Cannabis has become somewhat of a complimentary item for a lot of tourists," says Karolina Korvasova, a part-time guide. "Dumplings, beer, marijuana – this seems to be the young man’s tourist diet here in Prague."

In January 2010, a new law took effect in the Czech Republic to treat possession not just of cannabis (up to 15g) and Ecstasy (4 tablets), but of narcotics including crystal meth (2g) cocaine (2g) and heroin (1.5g) as misdemeanours subject to a maximum fine of €600.

The predictable consequences for the rest of the EU have been a flood of ever-cheaper drugs smuggled across no-longer-existent borders, and more hand-wringing about the need for a uniform European drug policy.

Problematic in Prague 

This new-found freedom has produced a rash of "growshops" scattered around the Prague city district of Zižkov, and less visibly, battles between local drug dealers and foreigners, notably Vietnamese, who have taken over the cannabis business and driven down prices.

Prague’s decision has amplified one of the core problems of cannabis, namely that it is a part of a highly integrated industry. Legalising marijuana, say critics like David Frum, Canadian-American pundit and board member of SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), will simply push up marijuana consumption. He argues that leading cartels will divert more and more resources to producing and marketing higher-profit drugs.

This seems to be borne out in the Czech Republic, where the soaring production of crystal meth is now spilling over into neighbouring Bavaria, as Bernhard Kreuzer, head of the synthetic drug unit at the State Criminal Police Office of Munich told Die Welt on 22 April.

Austria has not been immune to the spillage. The first reported case of crystal meth in the Alpine Republic dates back to the year 2002, but according to the Austrian monthly Datum, almost half of all documented cases of meth use today are found in Lower and Upper Austria. Although crystal meth is comparatively low-key in Austria, meth has become the second most popular drug in the Czech republic following marijuana.

The Czech Republic itself now boasts the highest levels of marijuana consumption amongst 15- to 16-year-olds in Europe, 42% of secondary school students report having used marijuana.

Dope tourists on Herrengracht 

For most people, Amsterdam is synonymous with coffee shops, where the acrid, tell-tale scent of cannabis has been the norm since the 1960s.

As a native Amsterdamer,  is not alone in his irritation with the constant stream of giggly, intoxicated, "obnoxious" drug tourists.

But as an economics student he finds drug tourism "mundane", and concedes there are strong arguments for legalising cannabis. This is music to the ears of the decriminalisation lobby, for whom laissez-faire Amsterdam is the model for dealing with drugs.

Their case was recently boosted by a Rand Corporation study suggesting that legalisation would cut street prices by about 80%, with the benign knock-on effect of reducing drug-related crime.

Another familiar argument is that, with legislation, consumers would have redress against dishonest drug dealers. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economics professor and self-acclaimed libertarian, also points out that violence is a natural consequence of the present arrangement. Arguments in the illegal drug trade cannot be resolved "by legal means," he says.

There is, too, increasing support from police authorities. "Making marijuana arrests a priority is a waste of police resources and does not reduce street violence," argues Anthony V. Bouza, a former NYPD commander. One million hours were spent by the NYPD between 2002 and 2012 on making 440,000 arrests for low-level marijuana possession. "Illegal, trivial, meaningless arrests undermine confidence in the justice system and corrupt the enforcers," he says.

Trusting people with freedom

Europe (like the U.S.) has, in practice, widely differing and shifting attitudes to the drug issue.There is much incoherence, with Holland and the Czech Republic making nonsense of tougher enforcement policies in neighbouring countries.

Less well-known is the case of Portugal, which on 1 October 2001 became the first EU member state explicitly to decriminalise drug possession: 1g of heroin, 2g of cocaine, 25g of marijuana and/or 5g of hashish are deemed not to exceed "the quantity required for an average individual consumption during a period of 10 days."

Lisbon social worker Rodrigo Garcez says that the law has not changed things very much, with one exception: "You still have the drug dealers and the shadiness that comes with the drug business. But those consuming (drugs) are treated and viewed differently."

With legalisation, both sides agree, drug-users are no longer seen through the prism of the criminal justice system. As the Dutch also discovered, once the stigma attached to criminal prosecution is removed, so too is one of the key barriers to seeking treatment.

Interestingly, unlike Amsterdam and Prague, Portugal has not attracted drug tourism: 95% of those accused of drug offenses since 2001 have been Portuguese. Moreover consumption of all drugs has plummeted in the most critical groups of young people (13-15 years and 16-18 years) since 2001, along with drug-related deaths, down from 400 in 1999 to 290 in 2006.

Making drugs uncool

Every country has its particularities. But it is a notable, and a potentially useful example, that Portugal’s initiative was balanced by social rehabilitation programmes such as Vida-Emprego (Life Employment Programme – PVE) to ensure drug-users had jobs while they were being treated.

Despite Europe’s lack of a uniform policy, it seems this more humane and pragmatic approach is gaining ground. In its 2005 annual report, the EMCDAA noted "the trend to conceive the illicit use of drugs as a relatively minor offence, to which it is not adequate to apply sanctions involving the deprivation of liberty."

Portugal is a leading example of an approach based on incentives, reminders, warnings, and invitations to rehab, in which drug users are not seen as outcasts or degenerates, but rather as citizens in need of extensive care and treatment.

The 2001 bill in Portugal killed the "rebel-factor" for many young people, says Rodrigo Garcez. "Once it’s not forbidden, it’s really not that ‘cool’ or ‘glamorous’. Beer did the job for me."

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