An Open Letter To The Mayor of Amsterdam

We have learned the hard way about letting the police set cannabis policies


My letter is being published in the Village Voice in a city originally called Nieuw Amsterdam because of the very odd coincidence that New York has just legalized the cultivation, possession, sale, and even public use of cannabis/marijuana—shortly after you announced that you intend to ban foreigners from Amsterdam’s remaining 166 cannabis “coffee shops.”

Yes, there are behavioral problems with public intoxication, but I think that police statistics will verify that these problems are still overwhelmingly related to alcohol and Amsterdam’s 1,100 bars. Would you consider closing them to foreigners? I would not seriously propose that, but it would certainly improve the street scene, especially at night.

You have been quoted as saying that the police are urging you to do this. If there is anything that an American might say, it would be — with all due respect — that we have learned the hard way about letting the police set cannabis policies. Policing is about solving crimes, not economics or special engineering.

Of course, there are also public health reasons for not banning foreign tourists from the coffee shops. First and foremost, it would undermine one of the great successes of Dutch drug policies: the “separation of the markets” for marijuana and hard drugs. If tourists cannot buy cannabis in coffee shops, it will be sold to them on the streets by street dealers, who will also offer them cocaine, meth, ecstasy, and synthetic (fake) hash.

The Dutch police raid thousands of marijuana grow-ops every year. To no avail. Wouldn’t these police resources be better utilized in going after hard drugs? But they want you to close the coffee shops to move a big part of the cannabis trade into the same channels with the problematic “party drugs”? Will depriving tourists of legal access to cannabis really reduce the demand for party drugs? That definitely did not work in America!

However, that is not the reason I’m writing to you. Once, I would have begged you not to do this because of Amsterdam’s importance in the struggle against marijuana prohibition. Now, with 16 states and Washington, D.C., having legalized recreational marijuana, there will be plenty of places to buy and smoke, so the world can no longer pretend that freedom doesn’t work.

Please permit me to give you some personal history that may explain my perspective. In 1972, the year Amsterdam got its first cannabis coffee shop, I was in Austin, Texas (the capital of my home state), to lobby to change the old Texas marijuana laws. There were over 800 people in Texas prisons for the simple possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. Thirty were serving life sentences. It was close, but we got the laws changed, and the 800 were re-leased that September.

A big improvement, yes! But over 20 million Americans have been arrested since then. Last year, over 60,000 of my fellow Texans were among the half-million Americans arrested for simple possession of marijuana. In fact, more Americans were arrested last year for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes combined. Since 1973, there have been more Americans arrested for marijuana possession than there are citizens in the Netherlands.

According to a study by the City University of New York, “From 1997 through 2012 (and into 2013) the New York City Police Department made more than 600,000 arrests and jailings of people for possessing small amounts of marijuana, mostly teenagers and young people in their 20s. In 2011, the NYPD made more than 50,000 arrests of people who possessed only a small amount of marijuana. In just that one year, the NYPD made more marijuana arrests than it did in the 19 years from 1978 through 1996.”

How was this possible in a city founded by your city, in a country that proclaims itself “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? Well, one part of it was simply to lie about the Dutch. In 1993, shortly after I became executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, I flew to Amsterdam. By coincidence, the day before I left Washington, I was on a radio talk show debating two representatives from the U.S. Drug Czar’s office, who described Amsterdam as something like Baghdad on a bad day: highest murder and incarceration rates in Europe! Heroin addicts everywhere! So I took a transcript with me to my meetings in Amsterdam.

Dutch friends had arranged for me to meet with academics and the head of the Amsterdam police “vice squad.” I remember him telling me that the police were rarely called to the then 700 coffee shops, but frequently to the bars. The Dutch I met were shocked that an old ally would lie so blatantly, but it continued for years. Five years after my meeting, then U.S. Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey went to Amsterdam and labeled Dutch drug policy an “unmitigated disaster.” McCaffrey claimed that the U.S. had less than half the murder rate of the Netherlands. As New Yorker Stanton Peele, a psychologist, attorney, psychotherapist, and author, described it on his website: “The erroneous Dutch and American murder rates were contained in McCaffrey’s European trip briefing book. The drug czar’s book contained similar misinformation about drug use: for example, ‘30.2 percent of Dutch youths say they have tried marijuana, vs. 9.1 percent in the United States.’ This figure represents lifetime use for the 16-19 year age group of the Amsterdam population in 1994, but only current (past month) use by the American group—obviously a ridiculous and unfair comparison! The comparable lifetime prevalence (‘ever used’) figure to the 30.2 percent for the Amsterdam population for American youths is 38.2 percent in 1994. In the U.S., this figure for 1997 was 49.6 percent!” Peele also states: “The Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics emphasized in a special press release that the actual Dutch murder rate is 1.8 per 100,000 people, or less than one-quarter the U.S. murder rate. For McCaffrey, a man trained on body counts during the Vietnam War, such figures are made to be manipulated—who can tell who is telling the truth anyhow?”

In the meantime, all of this has been scrubbed from the Drug Czar’s website. Down the memory hole. However, Amster-dam should not let this be forgotten. For a number of reasons, Amsterdam and the Netherlands should not merely “tolerate” the coffee shops. They should be celebrated. When the U.S. was poisoning its citizens and Mexican farmers with Paraquat, the Dutch were not. When British and American children were suffering from constant epileptic seizures, British parents could go to Amster-dam to get them cannabinoid medicine and try to smuggle it home. Sadly, in most of the rest of the world, even medical cannabis possession is still a serious crime.

In America, we will be welcoming the world to see and join our newly won freedom, and we will be rightly proud that we have finally thrown off the prohibitionist yoke, but I will never forget that the first day I felt truly free was when I walked into a little place in Amsterdam. I fell in love with your city and Haarlem, and have been back many times, living there for a few years. So, Madam Mayor, I will be back for a visit as soon as possible, and I hope I will still be welcome in such a place.

Richard Cowan

Cowan has been involved in the marijuana reform movement almost since its inception, and served as the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws from 1992 to 1995.

This letter has been edited for length and clarity.

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