Whose kids smoke more?

A new California study looks at teen cannabis use in American and the Netherlands

A new study published in the journal Addiction earlier this month challenged the United States’ “provincial” drug policy, especially as it relates to youth. The study compared cannabis use among U.S. teens to newly available data on usage rates in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. The results: The Dutch have about 700 adults-only clubs, yet Dutch teens report lower levels of weed usage than youth in the United States.

The author of the study, Robert J. MacCoun, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and Boalt Hall School of Law, shared some thoughts on what’s going on.

These numbers show 14 percent of 15-to-16-year-old Dutch kids reporting past-month pot usage, compared to 15.6 percent in the United States. Shouldn’t those numbers be the other way around?

That’s what everyone thought, but a number of papers over the past five years have focused on this new survey data that doesn’t seem to support that idea.

What’s going with this statistic: 71.5 percent of U.S. teenagers said it’s very easy to get pot, while in the Netherlands, it’s 45.5 percent. That seems way out of the realm of the margin of error.

So that’s a pretty striking finding, and I was just as surprised as you were by that, because I certainly expected greater perceived availability in the Netherlands. But because it’s been found in more than one survey, I’m inclined to give it some credence.

In the United States, kids have consistently told us that marijuana is easy to obtain and the vast majority of kids at most schools will say that. It’s usually more than 85 percent in a lot of schools saying, “It’s easy to obtain marijuana in my school,” and that’s been true in the United States for several decades, and you just don’t see that in Europe.

Some people want to point to medical marijuana, but it’s not a new story. Marijuana has been readily available long before we had medical marijuana in dispensaries.

Is this an apples-to-oranges study? I think of California, let alone America, as this extremely heterogeneous place, while Amsterdam comes off as more homogeneous.

You’re right, it is a leap to generalize from the Netherlands to the United States. But, as I say in the paper, it’s the only game in town. If you want to understand the effects of alternatives—if we’re talking about legalizing cannabis—you’ve got to go where people have actually experimented with different policies, and so that’s why it’s worthwhile looking at the Dutch system.