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I’m always dubious of proposals that rely on law enforcement to “mostly ignore” technical violations of a law, since that’s an open invitation for them to abuse their discretion. So I’d prefer to legalize commercial operations. But practically speaking, is there some way to open up commercial cannabis sales but limit their operations to a fairly small size?
I’m sure Kevin already knows that the Dutch system is designed to do exactly this. Possession of 5 grams or less of cannabis is not a criminal offense. Dutch “coffee shops” can sell cannabis products in quantities of 5 grams or less, but are not allowed to advertise. (US First Amendment law probably permits such regulation as well, since advertising restrictions are widely applied to the tobacco and alcohol industries.) To prevent industrial-scale cultivation and distribution, it is illegal for coffee shops to buy cannabis, since this would involve transactions greater than 5 grams. The original theory was to force them to grow their own. In practice however most coffee shops do buy their stuff wholesale, creating a somewhat incoherent and untenable situation. In response, in mid-2008 the association of Dutch city mayors convened a wiettop, or “weed summit”, at which the very smart and pragmatic mayor of Eindhoven, Rob van Gijzel, volunteered to start the first state-run and -regulated stadswietkwekerij, or “government weed nursery”. I assume the actual growing of the weed will be done by private entrepreneurs, but it will take place under a government roof so intensity and quantity can be regulated.
The main overall problem with the Dutch gedoogbeleid, or “toleration policy”, with regard to the drug war, is the problem of drug tourism. Because Dutch policies are out of step with those in Germany, Belgium, France and Britain, lots of drug tourists, mainly young, stupid and male, pour into Dutch cities to make trouble. The state balances its tolerant drug policies with public health programs for its population — safe drug use education, etc. — but those policies don’t catch the German 19-year-old boys on a weekend ecstasy and pot binge. If a single US state were to implement similar policies, especially a small state, it would encounter similar problems. If the US implemented them on national scale, it would encounter no such problems; the US is huge.
Finally, I’d like to comment on Kevin’s anxiety about “an open invitation for [law enforcement] to abuse their discretion.” Public servants need to have some room to operate. And indeed, they do — prosecutors have wide discretion in deciding whether to bring charges, police have wide discretion in deciding what to investigate and where and how to enforce the law, etc. It’s true that having rules that are widely expected to be ignored breeds contempt for the law and selective enforcement encourages corruption. But the fact is that we essentially have exactly this kind of system right now — police do not in practice spend almost any time enforcing drug laws against consumers of drugs, because that would be impossible, precisely because current law criminalizes too much normal behavior. Moving towards the Dutch or Australian system of moderate decriminalization while still barring large-scale commercial operations would reduce corruption and arbitrariness, not increase it. And citizens are going to have to have some moderate level of trust and confidence in the police not to abuse their authority.
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