A bitter-sweet scent lingers in the air, attaching itself to the stream of suitcases bobbing along the cobbled streets of Amsterdam. Suddenly, one of the many coffeeshops in the city is within sight, and the scent becomes all-consuming. At first glance, it may seem that the Dutch are coffee fanatics. But if you took one step closer, you would see the bloodshot eyes of customers through the windowsill, lined with bongs of every shape and size imaginable. If it still wasn’t obvious, a brief visit inside would soon reveal the city’s true tourist attraction: cannabis. In reality, the Dutch have switched out caffeine for cannabis - but at what cost?
Technically speaking, cannabis is not legal in the Netherlands. However, in the 1970s, the stance on drugs became more liberal, and there is now a ‘tolerance policy’ in place. As a result, the selling of ‘soft drugs’ such as cannabis is acceptable as long as these drugs are sold in small amounts within a coffeeshop or a smartshop. Notably, only coffeeshops have a special government licence that allows them to sell products containing the active THC chemical, which is what induces the most intensive psychoactive effect.
Addiction to any drug is a problem that should be avoided. However, the threat of addiction doesn’t stop most people from drinking or smoking, and an excess of anything can be bad for you. Arguably, we shouldn’t add cannabis to the roulette wheel of drugs that may, if used recklessly, lead to addiction. However, in the grand scheme of things, the possibility of addiction is not a reason to stop it from being tolerated. Yet, with tolerance, there should come regulation.
To a certain extent, it can be assumed that an adult is capable of recognising for themselves if taking cannabis will benefit them or not. However, it is also the responsibility of the state to provide some level of order and safety. There is a subtle line between allowing people to decide how they live their lives and trying to create a society that protects its citizens.
This balancing act is something the US failed to implement when it came to its policy on cannabis. At first, the US imposed a total ban on recreational use. Then a decade later the US decided to allow the drug to become widely available across most states with zero national safety standards. This has maximised the risks associated with legalising weed. The United States’ marijuana industry has been marketing weed irresponsibly and cultivating dangerously potent formulations. Selling potent cannabis increases the risk of addiction exponentially.
In contrast, although the Netherlands has a progressive stance on cannabis, there are still a plethora of rules in place. For example, coffeeshops can sell no more than 5g to one person a day, aren’t allowed to sell alcohol, and don’t allow anyone under 18 to even set foot within the premises. Thus, cannabis is a regulated substance, meaning that the negative effects of decriminalising cannabis can be contained, whilst the positive effects can be utilised.
For example, in medicinal terms, cannabis can provide relief for those suffering from chronic pain. Medical cannabis is legal in the UK, but currently, only specialist doctors can prescribe medical cannabis. It can be used for long-term pain management, as long as patients are ingesting oil rather than smoking the drug. If cannabis were to be legalised, patients suffering from illnesses such as epilepsy, MS, AIDS, etc. could find relief quicker through its easy access.
The decriminalisation of weed in the Netherlands has not made the majority of people become smokers. For example, in 2021, only 8% of the adults surveyed had smoked in the past year. Drug use in this country is average compared to that of other European countries. Hence, the tolerance of soft drugs, combined with strict regulation laws and a skill-oriented method to educate people about drug usage, doesn’t increase the number of users. A similar number of the country’s population are taking cannabis, but they are consuming it in a safer way.
Consequently, the number of addicts and drug casualties in the Netherlands is one of the lowest in Europe. Furthermore, the figure for drug-related deaths in the Netherlands is also the lowest in Europe. It seems that when soft drugs are widely accessible, they lose their appeal, especially to young people. Additionally, buying soft drugs from coffeeshops, instead of from drug dealers, blocks the gateway to hard drugs.
Another reason legalising weed could be beneficial is that it is estimated that it would move £2.5 billion into the economy and away from criminal gangs. There are concerns about the links between the coffeeshops and organised crime. However, this line of reasoning is flawed and arbitrary because the very fact that the drug goes through ‘criminal’ hands is because the supply chain that leads up to the back door of the coffeeshops remains prohibited. Therefore, the ‘back door’ concern is actually just a legal paradox.
In conclusion, if cannabis was legalised in the UK, it would make it easier for patients to receive its many health benefits. Equally, through the formal legalisation of weed, there can be closer regulation and safety checks, decreasing the number of overdoses. However, the UK is not ready to successfully adopt the policy of tolerating recreational weed. This is because, with difficult policy decisions having to be made surrounding Brexit, climate change, the cost of living crisis, etc. the government can’t afford the luxury of re-evaluating its drug policies whilst setting up an informative educational approach to drug usage. There is a risk that the UK could get stuck in the traps that the US has fallen into.
Finally, research has shown that cannabis use is associated with an increased risk for an earlier onset of psychotic disorders (such as schizophrenia) in people with other risk factors, such as family history. Cannabis intoxication can also induce a temporary psychotic episode in some individuals, especially at high doses. Therefore, for some, taking cannabis is risky and could lead to life-damaging effects. Without more research, people can’t make informed decisions. A safer and more responsible decision is to wait until its long-term and short-term effects are understood before embracing the wonders of weed.
Written by Kate Johns
The views and opinions presented in this article belong to Kate Johns — not TEDxWarwick.
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