Local Pot Laws Conflict with National Policies Worldwide

The United States isn't the only place where local marijuana policies clash with national laws. Even Amsterdam and the Dutch government have struggled with this tension. Read the rest of Governing's first-ever International Issue here.
February 2013
Flickr CC/SRI_The_Quack
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
The Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

Has The Dude, the pot-smoking character played by Jeff Bridges in the film “The Big Lebowski,” become Seattle’s new poster child? In December, using small quantities of marijuana became legal in Washington state, and the Seattle Police Department (SPD) responded by posting Bridges’ picture on its website with the caption, “The Dude abides, and says ‘take it inside.’”

Under the referendum passed by voters in November, state residents can possess small amounts of pot, but not in public. The SPD’s advice: “Under state law, you may responsibly get baked, order some pizzas and enjoy a ‘Lord of the Rings’ marathon in the privacy of your home, if you want to.”

Breckenridge, Colo., might have beaten them to it. For years, newspaper reporters have long referred to the town as “The Amsterdam of the Rockies,” where some residents quietly encouraged tourists to come for “our great outdoor beauty -- and then relax with a joint at the end of the day.” Now, residents in Colorado have also joined with Washington, voting to legalize the possession of small quantities of pot.

Read Governing's first-ever International Issue.

But if voters in Colorado and Washington decriminalized the possession of marijuana, federal law remains clear and inflexible. National drug policy still classifies pot as a Schedule I drug, along with heroin, ecstasy and LSD, with “no currently accepted medical use in the United States” and “a high potential for abuse.” That has left the Obama administration nothing but tough choices: invoking federal preemption and taking a tough enforcement stand, which would anger many members of the base that just returned the president to the White House; doing absolutely nothing; or artfully threading their way through the dilemma of strong state support for decisions that are in opposition to national policy.

Even Amsterdam has struggled with this tension. The Dutch capital is home to hundreds of “coffee shops,” where customers can legally enjoy both java and ganja. In fact, tourist officials estimate that 35 percent of all visitors to Amsterdam stop by a coffee shop. However, the center-right Dutch government in May banned the purchase of pot without a “wietpas” or weed pass, a membership in the coffee shops that is only available to residents. “The objective is to combat the nuisance and crime associated with coffee shops and the trade in drugs,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte explained.

The government’s crackdown stirred a huge backlash. Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan said the ban could push the marijuana trade from the coffee shops into the back alleys, as tourists “swarm all over the city looking for drugs.” He said, “This would lead to more robberies, quarrels about fake drugs and no control of the quality of the drugs on the market -- everything we have worked toward would be lost to misery.”

Ultimately, the Dutch national government found a crack to squeeze through. It insisted on maintaining its policy but left implementation in the hands of local officials. Amsterdam’s mayor quickly signaled that he wouldn’t be enforcing the ban. The coffee shops were back in smoke-filled business. Lady Gaga celebrated during an Amsterdam concert by smoking a spliff onstage she called “wondrous.”

But the national government hadn’t finished. In November, it proposed a new ban on “skunk” pot, which contains more than 15 percent of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the magic in marijuana). The Dutch justice minister said it was a “hard drug” that created dangerous addiction. The coffee shop industry countered that this could also lead to more danger and crime -- “Weak weed in the coffee shops, strong weed on the streets,” as a spokesman put it. Tourists would spill back into dangerous back alleys looking for the more potent high that the coffee shops could no longer provide.

For governments everywhere, toking up has raised some exceptionally tough issues. How far can national governments go in enforcing laws out of sync with local officials? How can local officials slide around national policies so they stay in sync with their citizens? In the Netherlands, as in most countries, the battle plays out among governments that are all part of the same (more or less) governmental system. Neighboring governments in France and Germany insisted they would keep their pot bans in place, and the Danish government refused a request from Copenhagen’s city council to experiment with Amsterdam-style deregulation. In the Czech Republic, Portugal and Switzerland, the national governments have taken a more Breckenridge-like position. In all these cases, national policy rules the day -- to the degree national officials can deal with intransigent local officials and the habits of their citizens.

In the United States, federalism puts an emphasis on local enforcement of laws. The dilemma comes when local laws -- and practice -- differ with national laws. Seattle’s police dealt with this problem by suggesting users not “flagrantly roll up a mega-spliff and light up in the middle of the street,” and instead, manage their munchies in the quiet of their own homes. But the Obama administration has to find a road that doesn’t abandon federal law when state voters decide they oppose it.

Governing everywhere is much more about finding a common ground between policy goals and different levels -- and charting a road to reconcile what officials want and what citizens will actually do. Our system of federalism, as always, adds a special twist.