Saturday, June 14, 2008

Is Amsterdam an ideal city? - comparing drug use between US and the Netherlands

Recently there is a call for papers among American sociologists on a conference called "Ideal City: New Perspectives for the 21st Century!" It thus brought a interesting discussion about whether Amsterdam is the ideal city, since the organizer of the conference tries to justify having this conference in Amsterdam because it is.

Amsterdam is known as the "Venice of the North." Progressives have called Amsterdam an ideal city when measured by the standard of social justice. Holland has what many call a "radical," "progressive," "unique" and for some a "sinful" approach to housing, drug laws, transportation, prostitution, crime, brown fields, and urban design. The Netherlands has turned our American urban policy and planning programs upside down and found innovative ways to solve social problems. Many American visitors who come to Holland come away shocked, amazed, impressed and changed forever. Holland is controversial. Indeed, Amsterdam is a laboratory of innovation that provides a national model for the rest of the world. It's a place where we can honor their successes and learn from their errors in urban policy and planning. Without a doubt, Holland is also the home of world class architecture that is envied around the world.

"Amsterdam is the great liberal experiment in Europe. No part of the city announces that liberalism as boldly as the red light district, where in the Oudekerkrsplein—there coexists the Old Church (possibly the oldest building in Amsterdam, believed to be consecrated by the Bishop of Utrecht in 1306), all the prostitutes in their doorways and windows, and a kindergarten. What other city in the world would believe in the hopeful coexistence of religion, prostitution and early childhood education?…But it is both brave and original of the Dutch to celebrate human differences."

It is a kind of proud for being close to this city. However, what really caught my attention is some data on drug usage comparing Americans and Dutch. I am just copying the following directly from the circulated email written by Dr John I Gilderbloom:

Drug use is higher in the Amsterdam because the vast amount of users is tourists who come there from around the world where they can do it legally and get the highest quality marijuana in terms of potency. But if you ask Dutch citizens, you get a much different result and goes against conventional wisdom on drug use (including the many U.S. comedies on the Dutch starting with Austin Powers). My sense is that U.S. Drug laws and prevention strategies simply don't work---it's the old axiom that if you tell a teenager not to do something or its against the law they will rebel and try it. I think that is part of the dynamic going on between the U.S. and Holland.Drug laws in the U.S. do not deter, they encourage. They need to be changed and Holland provides the ideal. Another reason, the potency of Dutch marijuana is so much more powerful than the weed smoked Jerry Garcia at Woodstock--as my family in Holland warned me--if you don't smoke make plans to be a zombie for 2 or 3 days with a possible big headache.
Here are a few numbers concerning drug rates per capita in the U.S. and in the Netherlands, which backs up my argument: along with the reputable multiple sources:

Comparison of Drug Use and Behavior United States (U.S.) and Netherlands (D)

Lifetime Prevalence of Marijuana Use 37 (U.S.) 17 (D)
Marijuana ever 46 (U.S.) 23 (D)
Marijuana in past year 14 (U.S.) 5 (Dutch)
Marijuana usage in past month 5.4 (U.S.) 3 (D)
Age first used marijuana 17 (U.S.) 19 (Dutch)
Cocaine ever 15 (U.S.) 3 (D)
Used cocaine in past year 11 (US) 1 (D)
Age first used cocaine 20 (US) 25 (D)
Lifetime prevalence of heroin use 1.4 (US) 0.4 (D)
Heroin ever 1 (US) 1 (D)
Smoked in past month 25 (US) 30 (D)
Teen smokers (past month) 13 (US) 19 (D)
Teen drinkers 29 (US) 21 (D)

1. US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Volume I. Summary of National Findings (Washington, DC: HHS, August 2002.
2. Trimbos Institute, "Report to the EMCDDA by the Reitox National Focal Point, The Netherlands Drug Situation 2002" (Lisboa, Portugal: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Nov. 2002.
3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2006). Results from the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-30, DHHS Publication No. SMA 06-4194). Rockville, MD.
4. Van Laar, M.; Cruts, G; Van Gegeldonk, A.; Croes, E; Van Ooyen-Houben, M., Meijer, R., and T Ketelaars. (2006) Trimbos Institute, Report to the EMCDDA by the Reitox National Focal Point, The Netherlands Drug Situation 2006. Numbers gathered by J. Gilderbloom, M. Hanka and C.B. Lasley.

It is astonishing to see the difference. I am not sure how has the drug mainly become a tourists' consumption rather than locals. First time coming to this city, people are all interested in seeing the red light district, and wanting to taste the grass in 'coffee shops'. It is only a desire for the new comers, not the locals. In streets of central Amsterdam, you sometimes see one guy standing in front of a shop, rambling something when you passing by. I guess they are those drug dealers. But I haven't seen any trade going on. On the other hand, the red light district is more exposed than the drugs. For me, the fun was to watch those potential customers negotiating in front of the glass door about the price. When everything is about money in this exchange, it somehow makes you feel that it is less dirty. I am not sure whether I am the only person who felt this way.

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