Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Smoking marijuana in Amsterdam

Photo from zambeza.com
by Gideon Lasco

Smoking marijuana in Amsterdam
by Gideon Lasco

AMSTERDAM - The distinctive aroma of cannabis is unmistakable, and there are parts of the city  center where, even with my eyes closed, I could tell that I’m in Amsterdam.

For four years now, I have kept coming back to this city for my graduate studies at the University of Amsterdam. Before our university moved further away from the city center, our department building was right at the red-light district, and when I had not yet mastered my way around the confusing streets and canals that look the same, I would sometimes end up in alleys where sex workers have their glass cubicles - or where coffee shops are suffused with the unerring vapor of the weed that is inexorably associated with the city itself.

As any local would point out, however, the monicker “Weed Capital of the World” is a misrepresentation of Amsterdam itself - a city that many of its residents love for its “small town” feel, and pragmatic sensibility. And while many in the city capitalize on its reputation by selling marijuana-themed souvenirs like cannabis leaf-shaped magnets, the Dutch government has actually introduced restrictions on marijuana use in recent years.

Yet it is still very acceptable to smoke cannabis here, and if I were to smoke a joint in Dam Square or the Museumplein - home of Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum - no one will notice, let alone arrest me. The city’s official website states that: “those aged 18 and above are permitted to smoke cannabis outside as long as doing so does not create nuisance to others.”

In one of his imaginative pieces in the Inquirer, Ambeth Ocampo interviews Jose Rizal, and gets the national hero to admit that he tried marijuana (a fact supported by Rizal’s own diary). If our national hero used marijuana, why couldn’t I?

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Smoking weed, of course, has become morally and politically contentious in ways Rizal never anticipated (he, like many youths today, was most likely just “trying out stuff”). A series of legislations starting in the early 20th century turned marijuana into a forbidden substance, even as its very forbidden-ness increased its appeal (“Masarap ang bawal”). By 1972, following the US-led “War on Drugs”, the Dangerous Drugs Act (RA 6425) classified marijuana as a “prohibited drug” - making it even more forbidden than shabu.

Supporters of this drug regime justified these draconian measures by asserting that marijuana is “gateway” drug that could lead to “hard” drugs such as shabu and cocaine. Thereafter, the war on drugs was taken for granted as the righteous thing to do, and it was anathema to even question it. Politicians readily took up the cause, and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo even made the penalties harsher in 2002 with an amended Dangerous Drugs Law that imposes 12 - 20 years of jail time to anyone in possession of less than 300 grams of cannabis. In 2005, a man found in possession of two hand-rolled sticks of marijuana got sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The Dutch, on the other hand, took an entirely different approach, changing its policies on marijuana in 1976. Contrary to popular belief, they didn’t actually legalize marijuana (it’s still technically illegal until now), but they made a sharp distinction between “hard drugs” like methamphetamine and “soft drugs” like marijuana for which they pursued a policy of “non-prosecution”. Instead of looking at these drugs as a criminal problem, they saw them as a public health concern, and focused on reducing the harms associated with drug use. By permitting “coffee shops” to openly sell marijuana, for instance, Dutch policymakers felt that they were isolating users from dealers who would also be selling cocaine alongside marijuana. Importantly, they were not alienating drug users from society, welcoming them to avail of medical and rehabilitative services.

Forty years later, despite these policies, the lifetime drug use prevalence in the Netherlands is no more than that of neighboring countries, and it has the lowest rate of injecting drug use in Europe. Meanwhile, in the US where billions of dollars have been spent on a “War on Drugs”, states like Oregon and Colorado are beginning to legalize or decriminalize medical and recreational marijuana, following the Netherlands’ lead.

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The Dutch context, of course, is very different: euthanasia, abortion, and same-sex marriage have been legal here for decades - and what has worked for them may or may not work for us, given our own sociocultural, demographic, and economic circumstances. The Dutch drug policy, moreover, is not without its problems and challenges - such as dealing with increasingly more potent varieties of cannabis, and the tenacious presence of an illegal drug trade.

Nonetheless, the Dutch experience on drugs should call into question the policies we have been unreflectingly following all these years. If, as a Mayo Clinic study demonstrated, marijuana poses less risk (9%) in developing dependence compared to “legal addictions” like nicotine (32%) and alcohol (15%), why impose such a heavy penalty for its users? If, as Canadian researchers have found, it is a safe and effective treatment for chronic pain relief, why ignore its potential health benefits?

We need an open and vigorous conversation about drugs. Not because someone like me can freely smoke marijuana in Amsterdam, but because many are smoking it in the Philippines, and they - along with those who seek its potential health benefits - are needlessly suffering the consequences of laws that don’t make sense.

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