Drug tourism in the Netherlands: Any lessons for California?

The City of Maastricht is battling the European Union over whether it can prevent drug tourism by having “coffee shop” sales restricted to Dutch citizens. If the EU rules that Dutch coffee shops cannot deny cannabis sales to people from outside of the Netherlands, Maastricht may follow the lead of other Dutch border cities, which have simply closed their shops to get rid of drug tourism. The EU’s push for policy harmonization could thus lead to more restrictive cannabis policies in its member states (even as it has tended to open up access to alcohol).

One might wonder why the Dutch would not want drug tourism, given that governments normally do their best to lure tourists to visit and to spend money. The coffee shop owners of course want drug tourists and the profits they bring. But the rest of community endures more costs than benefits.

The central problem with drug tourism is one of selection: People who will travel even an hour to use drugs are not a random sample of all drug users. The same principle applies to all those Brits who fly RyanAir to Spain for all-you-can-drink weekend promotions at budget hotels, and the U.S. college kids on spring break who are drawn to similar offers in Mexico. Cannabis users as a population are not particularly prone to vandalism, disorderly conduct, and petty theft, but the subpopulation of users that will take a trip (no pun intended) for cannabis often commit these crimes, creating nuisance, distress and policing costs for locals.

A further cost to the country that attracts drug tourists is how more serious criminals respond. If you are a dealer in cocaine or methamphetamine, and you want to efficiently access a pool of probable customers, border towns with drug tourists are attractive bases of operations. There you will find many young men who are by definition unusually interested in using drugs and are away from whatever social constraints and norms surround them at home.

If California legalizes marijuana, drug tourism would be substantial in border communities as well as in cities with budget airline service. Being free from EU-like constraints, the state could try to reduce such tourism by limiting cannabis sales to state residents. This however would make only a marginal difference unless state residents had a cap placed on how much cannabis they could buy (else they would simply buy a large amount and turn around and sell it at marginal profit to out of state drug tourists). It would not be impossible to build a fairly strong regulatory system, but the needed policing would cost money (those putative savings of Proposition 19 are looking smaller all the time) and because the system would be imperfect, at least some California communities would endure the externalities of drug tourism that the people of Maastricht are facing now.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

20 thoughts on “Drug tourism in the Netherlands: Any lessons for California?”

  1. You mean like South Lake Tahoe is already a gambling tourism destination?

    Actually, most of CA's borders are pretty boring places, and surely zoning laws can help keep the quick jaunts and back down to a minimum.

  2. Any externalities of drug tourism when California legalizes cannabis will be as nothing compared to the externalities of present prohibition.

    There is no need to create a strong but imperfect regulatory system in response to the externalities of any drug tourism that develops along the California border. Other states will follow suit once California voters show what can be done. Once the incentive for drug tourism is gone, so will be drug tourism.

    Reserve strong regulatory systems for the financial sector please.

  3. Americans cannot drive East from San Diego without being stopped and searched by Federal Agents. A drive to Phoenix has about three stops, many with drug-sniffing dogs. The dogs are used just inside Arizona, where no CA permit works. They are busting small amounts, personal use amounts.

    I see this blanket approach as very un-American. It's insulting.

    This will certainly slow the car tourists; which are the 1-3 low-buck hour folks.

    You know, I suspect that most anyone who wants pot can get pot. I guess the quality smuggled around might go up. I suppose some tourists will steer to CA as a side-line – not as the main feature. That activity would be fine if they drive OK.

  4. Cannabis is technically illegal in Netherlands and therefore not taxed, except indirectly. A tax like that proposed in CA compensates for many of the externalities that Keith mentions.

    Also worth pointing out that our neighboring states have tiny populations compared to Germany and that our cities are mostly far away from those states. I expect new little border cities will pop up with specialty markets, but they might welcome the business. So the British drunken tourism may be a reasonable analogy, but Maastricht, not quite as much.

    The ironic exception about distant borders is San Diego, where Mexican drug tourists may travel north for the gringo drugs.

  5. Do "drug tourists" vist the Neatherlands only to smoke pot unharrassed or do people who want to go on vacation in a lovely european country decide to go there because of the added enjoyment of a little more freedom?

    Tourists always cause problems for local law enforcement. I lived in a resort town for most of my adult life and wild partying tourists were always a topic of controversy, with or without drugs. So why do tourist towns put up with them? It's the MONEY! And make no mistake, the locals will bitch about those damned tourists all the way to the bank.

  6. Thanks for the interesting comments, a couple of responses.

    First, drug tourists are not analogous to other tourists in general. Yes, people in Rome complain about tourists who jam the streets and create long lines etc., but they profit from them enormously. But the spending of regular tourists is more broadly spread than that of drug tourists (who from the research I have seen, really are there to use drugs not to see a nice European country, just as the Brits in Southern Spain are there to drink and not to explore the historical and cultural delights of that country). Regular (non-drug) tourists also do not have the level of criminal/disruptive behavior as drug tourists, as you would expect from the demographics: Regular tourists include a high proportion of families with children, drug tourists tend to be single young males…those groups generate different externalities, the former being less obnoxious to most residents.

    Second, I agree with those of you who posit the creation of border towns under California legalization whose essential purpose is to provide cannabis (and other legal substances). On the Iran-Iraq border are teeny towns with bars, where young couples (Sometimes one Iraqi and One Iranian, sometimes two from one country) go to get smashed and hang out with their main squeeze away from their parents and from the usual social norms. Mexico had towns like this under U.S. alcohol prohibition.

    Third, when writing, I was thinking about why Las Vegas has a unique history here. I think it is because it was essentially founded by Bugsy Siegel as a gambling spot (In its modern form, it was a cow town before that, though even then with gambling). Because the city is so essentially tied into that industry, more people have accepted the externalities of gambling tourism and are economically wired into the profit from that trade. This may apply to some towns in wine country as well, although I don't know that history. Maastricht of course was not founded that way, its an old city full of people with no interest in the cannabis cafes who are not economically connected to them. When people decided to move to Maastricht (or Southern Spain) they didn't necessarily buy into the arrangement that comes with moving to Las Vegas.

    Fourth, you could use a tax as Brian proposes to compensate communities for the externalities. The trick is that cannabis will be very cheap under legalization, so the tax would have to small, or, there would have to be substantial policing in order to prevent widespread tax evasion. We don't know the right amount because we don't know how much exactly cannabis prices will fall if legalized.

  7. You're not saying that the possibility of drug tourism provides good justification for voting against Prop 19, are you?

    Drug tourism is really just a distraction piled on to drown out the main point, seems to me.

  8. Steve

    Some will say that the drug tourism issue should never even be discussed because it clashes with unvarnished support for the greatest proposal in the history of humanity which will solve all our problems for all time. Others will say that the concern I have raised proves beyond any doubt that cannabis legalization will destroy Western civilization. I can't do anything about the fact that that is the level of debate much of the time. I assume though that isn't what people come to RBC for, but for serious policy analysis. Drug tourism is one of the things serious and responsible policy analysts will weigh in evaluating the likely impact of Proposition 19. Period.

  9. OK Keith. Good. I understand. Just wouldn't want the policy makers to cherry pick and exploit isolated snippets of policy analysis.

    I reserve that right for myself. ;>)

  10. The two examples of drug tourism you cite, Brits going to Spain and college kids to Mexico, are both alcohol tourism. If the complaints are about vandalism and public disorder, you'd certainly expect alcohol tourists to be a lot more objectionable than cannabis tourists. How about some descriptions of the externalities faced by towns hosting cannabis tourists? The Times article you linked to doesn't really contain any, just a mention that "Much of the criminality associated with the coffee shops, experts say, revolves around what people here call the “back door” problem. The government regulates what goes on in coffee shops. But it has never legalized or regulated how the stores get the drugs they sell — an issue that states in the United States that have legalized medical marijuana are just beginning to grapple with."

    Prop. 19 is about exactly the problem being complained about here, establishing a legal source of supply.

  11. Dear Aardvark Cheeselog (awesome handle, BTW):

    The backdoor problem is indeed a basic dilemma of the Dutch policy, but it's not related to drug tourism — you have it in those cities that have closed their cafes.

    People traveling to get drunk may very well generate more damage than those going to get high on cannabis. I don't know the empirical answer to that, but my guess would be yours, worse with alcohol tourists.

    The main problems drug tourists in the Netherlands bring (or so the police there tell me) is vandalism, petty theft, nuisance violations and disorder. The NYT article mentions another level of problem, that higher level drug dealers are attracted to towns with many cannabis tourists.

    And last, please remember one of main points in initial post, this isn't about the effect of cannabis users as a population, but the subset that will cross a border to use cannabis — this isn't a matter of pharmacology of cannabis…as I said I don't think the using population as a whole is prone to sorts of crimes that are common among drug tourists.

  12. "Fourth, you could use a tax as Brian proposes to compensate communities for the externalities."

    One can't help but see here the same old story as with the supposed gains from "free" trade — why not just compensate those who are specifically hurt by the new regime. Let's ask rustbelt America how well that has worked out.

    It's a very different thing from claiming that some pool to money exists to proving that that pool of money will, first of all, be used to compensate those who suffer the externalities, before it is used for any other purpose.

  13. The Netherlands is a TINY country. If the border towns close their coffee shops, just drive 20 more minutes to a non-border town.

  14. Bekker – Barstow could use the help. Unfortunately, I think many Phoenix and Las Vegas consumers will stop before they get that far, but the places they stop at will probably welcome the business.

    I've thought that people have underestimated the ability to impose high taxes on cannabis. Very high taxes will create a black market in cannabis – so what? We already have a black market in cannabis, and I'd expect if anything, consumers would pay a premium to buy a product that doesn't get them in legal trouble and is safe.

    Presumably there's some kind of Laffer Curve balancing the per-unit revenues from taxes versus shifting too much production to a black market. Mark Kleiman may have written about this (pessimistically) a while back, but I'm not sure.

  15. The other complaint about raising drug tourism externalities in connection with Prop. 19 (i.e. beyond questioning the relevance of complaints about alcohol tourism, and the irrelevance of the back-door problem) is the same as my issue with Mark K's concerns about California exports.

    The concerns about exports and drug tourism are inconsistent with the observation that Prop commercial distribution will be a dead letter. Would-be exporters and tourists would still have engage in black-market transactions. Police will be free to arrest blatant commercial sellers, and the kinds of grow-ops that would be necessary to supply export markets and drug tourism retailers would remain illegal. The black market would be in competition with a grey market supplied by law-abiding operators of 25 sq. ft. grows, which would drive down prices while making difficult for bulk purchasers to arrange buys. Cheaper grey-market pot might cause problems, but as long as the quantities available from a given producer remain limited, it won't offer special opportunities for export or tourism.

    I see the reason to dislike Prop 19 on grounds of basic honesty about the commerce provisions, but it's really hard for me to understand why any right-thinking Californian would say anything worse about it than "hold your nose and vote Yes."

  16. I had friends who would visit Masstricht while living in Germany, for the "tourism" reasons. They'd make their buy, hang out at a cafe for a few hours, and come back (with their supply). Not trouble makers, not vandals. I wouldn't think that most visitors came to cause trouble; they come to buy drugs and leave. But I can see how it would lead to higher rates of petty crimes, especially with the much wider range of drugs that are tolerated.

    More importantly, Masstrict has perhaps 50 million people living within a three hour drive of the town (not to mention all the longer rail links).

    The entire eastern border of California is nothing but vast empty deserts and towering mountain ranges. The same is generally reciprocated across the border. Aside from Vegas and Havasu City, there are no easy tourists. The empty and dusty border towns will undoubtedly grow a dispensary or two to complement the filing stations and fast food outlets, but they will not become some sort of drug mecca.

    Potheads will flock to Venice Beach and the Haight. But what is new about that? Remember, every dollar spent on legal, taxed marijuana is a dollar taken from the pockets of the Narcos. An increase in vandalism is well worth a decrease in massacres across the US border.

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