David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 6/2/06
Belgians evidently don't want the marijuana around, or they would adopt some "tolerance" policy to it too (though evidently some Belgians do want it, or they wouldn't patronize the coffee shops); Dutch presumably want some tourism but evidently don't want as much of that kind of it as they're now getting where they're getting it, as Maastricht's municipal government has decided to move several of the city's coffee shops to the border. Belgian municipal authorities aren't pleased, but the Dutch feel the Belgians ought to deal better with marijuana policy themselves rather than effectively sending large numbers of young people to their side where they have to deal with it.
We should have such problems here. Having a few more people hanging out in a neighborhood than the neighbors might like is a positively tame situation compared with the disorder and violence accompanying the illicit drug trade as it is manifested in the US; and the Lanaken-Maastricht border is a veritable flower garden to stroll in, compared with the danger and violence lying between (and flowing out from) San Ysidro-Tijuana or El Paso-Juarez or Laredo-Nuevo Laredo. The US-Canadian border isn't quite so scary, but neither is it free from its hazards. (The TV series Twin Peaks used cross-border drug trafficking violence to the north as a key element in its twisted plot lines.)
Tolerance is not a perfect system of drug regulation with no downsides. I had the annoying experience during a visit to Amsterdam, for example, two times, of being followed up the street for blocks by low-level dealers who refused to take "no" for an answer to their offer to sell drugs to me and my pleas that they leave me alone for whole minutes. The city of Zurich in Switzerland had a famous experiment called "Needle Park," in which they established a zone within a downtown public park where hard drug users could inject without being arrested and where sterile syringes and other health services were made available. It became a big mess and was closed down.
The Needle Park experiment is sometimes held up by prohibitionists as a failure of legalization, but in fact it is nothing of the sort. Needle Park was no legalized drug zone; it was a park in the middle of a city where addicts from around the country (and really around the EU because of open borders) gathered in close quarters to inject illegal drugs -- without being arrested for it, but procuring them from the black market and paying the black market's high prices. Legalization means that the distribution and supply is legal and maybe regulated, not merely that users aren't getting arrested. And we wouldn't have everyone involved with a drug cramming into one park in the middle of a continent; people would buy their drugs at legitimate outlets (pharmacies or other kinds of stores) located in their own communities.
The Lanaken-Maastricht situation is also an example not of what legalization does, but of radically differing policies being in place within bordering jurisdictions. Belgium could open coffee shops too, or regulate marijuana and other drugs in some other way, and in so doing reduce the ills of the drug trade in that way while sparing Dutch border towns the crowds they don't want. The annoying Amsterdam dealers who couldn't believe that I wouldn't buy drugs from them no matter how much they hounded me were only there because drugs on the supply side are still illegal even if they don't arrest users or target low-level dealers.
So it's important not to confuse the artificial problems suffered sometimes by cities or states or countries that have become islands of tolerance, with anything that should be expected under an actual post-prohibition system. Senator Carlos Gaviria Diaz, former Supreme Court chief justice and recent presidential candidate whose second-place showing dramatically increased the standing of his party (and speaker at DRCNet's 2003 Latin America conference), said as much when asked by press during his campaign. "I'm in favor of legalizing drugs, but I'm also aware that a government cannot do this," he said last week. Legalizing the drug trade would mean the state could control it, "but Colombia would become a pariah country." Legalization is something Colombia desperately needs, drug trade violence and corruption are literally tearing the nation apart, but the nations of the world should end prohibition together.
I therefore wish for Colombia to soon have the problems they are currently having in the Netherlands, and for the US to have those kinds of problems too. They would be greatly preferable to the problems we are having now -- I'd take them over what we have now, on any day.