How High Will You Get If Marijuana Is Freely Available?
Marijuana Consumption Among International Students In Amsterdam
Adapted from a simple observational study done by Herrmann, Ong and Piovesan (2009). Available upon request.
It might surprise many that Cambodia and North Korea are the trailblazers when it comes to liberalizing pot laws, and while many European states have already loosened or are loosening their pot laws in response to changing social mindsets and ineffective drug policies, the United States is just beginning to follow suit, with the electorate of Colorado and Washington voting to legalize marijuana consumption without a doctor’s recommendation. They are joining California, who since 1996 have already begun liberalizing their pot laws.
For the uninitiated, pot, marijuana or cannabis can be obtained in two forms, dried marijuana, commonly known as weed, or processed marijuana resin, known as hash or hashish. Marijuana has a long history, with records of usage of its various forms stretching back hundreds of years. In fact, the hardline stance taken against marijuana is, from a historical perspective, a recent phenomenon. Marijuana is commonly smoked or consumed in edibles and has found much popularity over the years with many different groups of people, ranging from Rhastafari religion that uses marijuana spiritually, to medical marijuana users who use marijuana for its purported medicinal properties, to recreational users who enjoy getting high.
In the last respect, The Netherlands can be said to be one of the havens for recreational marijuana consumption. An amendment to the Dutch Opium Act in 1976 decriminalized the possession and consumption of marijuana and since then, coffeeshops selling marijuana products have been prevalent in the Netherlands, with more than 200 of them in Amsterdam alone. This was done with several objectives: to separate the market of drugs, to allow youngsters access to marijuana while denying them access to harder drugs such as heroin or cocaine. Secondly, to minimize the societal disruption that might be caused by drug users. Decriminalizing marijuana was also meant to reduce organized crime and drug trafficking, as the Dutch government believed that the regulated sale of marijuana would deal a blow to the black market.
One of the concerns states have about the decriminalization of marijuana is whether society might be negatively affected by easily available marijuana. This can be interpreted to mean that the states are concerned that the number of marijuana consumers would increase to the point of causing a break in the social fabric. Due to a paucity of research in this area, many states are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to determine the social impact of loosening pot laws. As an undergraduate student, your correspondent decided to carry out a simple study to see if it could provide any preliminary indication of how things could turn out with looser pot laws.
Since Amsterdam has a good mix of international students and Dutch students, it was a good place to study both how international students reacted when they arrived to a place where marijuana was easily obtainable, as well as how students might consume marijuana after a prolonged exposure to available marijuana. Our aim was to find out if decriminalizing marijuana would indeed lead to an increase in marijuana consumption, by carrying out a survey among international students who previously did not have access to decriminalized marijuana, as well as among Dutch students, who have been living with such access to decriminalized marijuana.
Keeping in mind that the sample size was rather small (110 students) and might not represent the general population, the answer to our question of ‘how many times to do you smoke cannabis per week?’ yielded the following response.
Theory suggests that the increase incannabis consumption could be because of short-term substitution due to casual consumers, as the availability of marijuana allows students to substitute it for alcohol or tobacco consumption. When asked why their consumption habits are changed from their consumption habits at home, the international students responded like this:
The accessibility of marijuana plays a clear part in their changes in consumption habits. However, these results do not showhow these consumption habits evolve over a longer period of time. With regards to the Dutch students, the vast majority of them consume marijuana less than once a week, in stark contrast to the consumption habits of international students. Previous studies have mentionedthat Dutch students often consume marijuana in their teenage years, such that by the time they get to university, they consume much less than international students. Drawing on anecdotal evidence from interactions with Dutch people, it seems as if the novelty of having availablecannabis wears off in their youth and that the easy accessibility of cannabis in coffeeshops does not affects their consumption patterns anymore, as the effects of marijuana does not appeal to them as much as the effects of other available drugs such as alcohol.
Despite the limitations of this informal study, there could be some food for thought for states that are currently considering decriminalizing marijuana. Decriminalizing marijuana could reduce black market trade and gang involvement,which are arguments that Uruguay has used on its way to legalizing marijuana, at the same time increasing government revenue and providing employment in the form of growers, distributors and sellers if marijuana is taxed like alcohol and tobacco. Catalunya, and more generally Spain, is carrying out serious studies to see if it a feasible way to increase tax revenue,since smoking associations are already allowed to operate as cooperatives providing marijuana to its members. To determine the impact that decriminalized marijuana has on society, the example of The Netherlands could be studied further and more formally to aid governments in their policy making.
Perhaps prohibition era drug policies are not the optimal solution to the drug related problems in our modern day society.