At the Grassroots: Drug-Taking

Ah, autumn in New England: the gorgeous leaves, and cozy smoke going up the chimney. On a grey September 23rd, on muddy Boston Common, leaves and smoke are definitely the issue. A sweet-smelling haze drifts over the common, together with thumping music from a rock band.

pot legalization

A youthful crowd of about 50,000 has gathered to stand up, like patriots of old, for their inalienable right to smoke just as much pot as they want.

In July, Lee Brown, the White House’s national drug policy director, kicked off a new campaign against the demon weed. He would not have been thrilled by the scene on Boston Common. The rally, organized by the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, intentionally evokes Boston’s revolutionary past. One man is draped in an American flag, another in a vine of cannabis leaves. People are wearing T-shirts that read “I Have A Dream”, with a picture of a familiar leaf. “Adults have the right to choose what we put in our body!” declares one speaker, citing Locke.

stoned crowd

A good portion of the young crowd is half-baked. Their logic may not be. Marijuana has the dubious distinction of being a Schedule I drug, meaning it is illegal for any use. Other Schedule I drugs, LSD and heroin, are harder stuff. Even cocaine and morphine are only Schedule II (the scale of federal controlled substances runs to Schedule V), meaning they have some accepted medical use. So, in addition to the millions of Americans smoking marijuana for fun, there is a thriving underground marijuana trade for people who hope to feel better as they suffer the ravages of cancer or AIDS.

Other drugs have much the same medical effects as marijuana: suppressing some nausea, fighting pain. But these drugs are not as much fun for the healthy as recreational marijuana. It is reckoned that some 30 million Americans, roughly Canada’s population, have tried marijuana. And the number is on the rise. A study by the University of Michigan last year found that about 13% of American 14-year-olds had tried marijuana in the previous year, double the total three years ago. That is bad news indeed if marijuana is in fact a “wedge” that leads to nastier drugs.

marijuana use chart

But a sensible debate about the pros and cons of marijuana legalization is not likely so long as marijuana remains political shorthand for licentiousness. In the 1992 campaign, Republicans accused Bill Clinton of being “a philandering pot-smoking draft-dodger”, and Mr. Clinton made his deathless rebuttal that he had not inhaled. Joycelyn Elders, the most recent surgeon-general, was pilloried for considering drug legalization. Last December Newt Gingrich, then about to become House speaker, said that “up to a quarter of the White House staff, when they first came in, had used drugs in the last four or five years.” But Mr. Gingrich himself had enjoyed marijuana as a student: “That was a sign we were alive and in graduate school in that era.”

pot smoker

It is not just pols who have a hard time being serious about marijuana. The drug’s advocates have a way of making themselves ridiculous. On Boston Common a speaker makes the point, for the umpteenth time, that it is appropriate that the crowd has gathered in the cradle of American liberty, Boston. “Is that where we are?” asks a demonstrator.

Drug Dealers? What Drug Dealers?

Nothing illustrates the elusive Dutch word gedogen better than the Netherlands’ policy on drugs. The bottom line, if you are a lawyer, is that soft drugs are both legal and illegal. Put another way, you can get high on cannabis at home or in a special “coffee-shop”, but it is illegal for anyone to supply you or your coffee-shop with dope.

Coffee Shops

That’s where gedogen-looking the other way-comes in. Over the past two decades, the government has in effect legalized the consumption of soft drugs. Local authorities, with the acquiescence of police and prosecutors, turn a blind eye to a clutch of pot-smoking haunts. In Amsterdam, for instance, there are 250 designated coffee-shops and 109 pot-head bars, notable for the gedogenishly suggestive (and therefore not too explicit) signs on their windows and the exotic smells wafting into the street.

The eye-winking comes with five strict caveats. People under 18 are not to be served pot. Actual advertising, such as pot menus in the window, is not on. Neighbors must not be annoyed. Hard drugs and “designer drugs”, chiefly amphetamines (“speed”) and ecstasy, must not be sold on the premises. And customers must confine themselves to five grams of the soft stuff (enough for seven or eight joints) per session. This figure came down this summer, under pressure from France, from 30 grams. That, it was said, was enough to encourage a nice little trade, which some EU members think has got out of hand, especially within the border-free area outlined by the Schengen agreement, which most continental EU members have now signed.

Netherlands drug policy

The Dutch say, rightly, that their hard-drugs problem has actually diminished since pot was in effect made legal, and that they come quite low in the league of addiction. “Our policy works” is the mantra intoned across the political spectrum.

The snag, though, is that the soft policy on soft drugs serves as a magnet for criminal dealers, who supply the drugs, both soft and hard, and have made the Netherlands a European haven for dealers and takers. President Jacques Chirac is said to be particularly annoyed. “An airport [Schipol] surrounded by coffee-shops”, is how his man at The Hague is supposed, in a moment of frustration, to have described the country to which he is accredited. Most ecstasy tablets popped in Britain are reckoned to come from Holland.


About half of Dutch-consumed pot is thought to be grown at home, for some 600,000 to 1 million regular Dutch pot-smokers (regularity is defined by the same yardstick as church-going: a joint or two, most weekends).

The gedogen rule-of-thumb is that an individual can grow about five nice cannabis plants at home “for domestic consumption” (not for sale, gosh no), with special mini-greenhouses easily obtainable to speed the sprout. But half the stuff still comes from abroad, especially from Morocco.

Self-evidently, such supplies are circulated by professional, criminal, dealers often involved in other types of organized crime. Some local authorities have proposed that, to curb and control supply, they should grow the stuff themselves. But the idea has failed to take flight. It would be an affront, presumably, to the god of gedogen.

weed users

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