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Cannabis Coffee Shops: Should America Adopt Dutch Marijuana Regulations?

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Should Americans be able to buy marijuana in coffee shops?

A new study by U.C. Berkeley Law and Policy Professor Robert MacCoun explores whether the United States would benefit from regulating cannabis like the Dutch. MacCoun examined the effects of the drug on Dutch society over the course of more than 30 years and discovered that America might have a lot to learn from what he dubs "quasi-legalization."

In the Netherlands, proprietors of such coffee shops sell marijuana in limited quantities to adults over the age of 18. They don't offer alcohol or tobacco products on the premises, and advertising is strictly prohibited. While cannabis use remains technically illegal under Dutch law, the law also states that officials cannot take action against those who sell or use marijuana in designated coffee shops.

"It's essentially legalization, but it's slightly ambiguous," MacCoun told The Huffington Post. He explained that despite the ubiquity of the coffee shop model, Dutch authorities have still managed to remain successful in enforcing against high-level trafficking, which keeps pot prices relatively high. "In a full legalization model, the price would drop substantially," MacCoun said, "and you'd see bigger increases in use."

On the other hand, MacCoun's findings suggest that "quasi-legalization" doesn't yield increases in pot smoking. "While use went up, it didn't go up very much," MacCoun said of Dutch marijuana habits since the country introduced the coffee shop system in the 1970s. "And problematic use is quite modest by European standards."

Instead, MacCoun found that Dutch marijuana users were actually less likely to try harder drugs than their pot smoking counterparts in neighboring countries. He attributes that revelation to the fact that the coffee shop system breaks up the "gateway effect." In other words, by separating the cannabis market from the markets for more dangerous substances, marijuana smokers will be less likely to be tempted to try, say, cocaine sold by the same drug dealer.

"For me, that was the most tantalizing result," he said. "The Dutch have actually come up with a way to regulate cannabis use while minimizing its harms."

MacCoun posited that the United States would indeed benefit from a similar system, but noted that marijuana's federal classification as an illegal drug would pose challenges. He also warned that America's free speech protections would make curtailing advertisements impossible. "I don't think we could directly adopt a Dutch policy overnight," he said. "But there would be criminal justice savings and tourist revenue...we'd have a less intrusive system without seeing much increase in problems."

Ironically, just as MacCoun was putting the finishing touches on his findings, the Dutch government called its coffee shop system into question, introducing a measure that would prohibit marijuana sales to tourists. MacCoun warned such legislation would have a grave impact. "It would drive a lot of shops out of business," MacCoun said. "It would certainly shrink, if not eliminate, the system."

Meanwhile, MacCoun suggested that as the Netherlands becomes less tolerant of cannabis, the United States might be moving in the opposite direction -- at least in states where medical marijuana is legal. "In some communities, the medical marijuana model is similar to the Dutch model," MacCoun said, citing cities like Venice Beach, Calif., and the popularity of collectives like the Bay Area's Oaksterdam. "Most medical marijuana dispensaries are more like coffee shops than opium dens. It's not a sordid scene."

But what about full legalization?

"It's risky," MacCoun said. "It would set in motion a series of commercial forces that would increase promotion and dramatically decrease price. From a public health standpoint, I'm very skeptical of just handing things over to the market."

MacCoun said he believes the United States would ultimately benefit most from a model that would relax marijuana laws without big price drops. "Marijuana prohibition is expensive, intrusive and ineffective," he said. "I lean toward policies that emphasize harm reduction. We should reduce the harm of both drug use and drug policies."

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