Academic journal article Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education

Assessing the Relationship between Marijuana Availability and Marijuana Use: A Legal and Sociological Comparison between the United States and the Netherlands

Academic journal article Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education

Assessing the Relationship between Marijuana Availability and Marijuana Use: A Legal and Sociological Comparison between the United States and the Netherlands

Article excerpt


The United States and the Netherlands have antithetical marijuana control policies. The United States' laws criminalize the possession of even small amounts of marijuana, while the Netherlands have maintained, over the past several decades, two relatively liberal marijuana policies implemented during the 1970s and 1980s. According to the literature on environmental drug prevention strategies, the Dutch policy should result in increased marijuana use because of the drug's amplified availability, while the United States 'policy should result in reduced marijuana use. The empirical evidence addressing these hypotheses, however, is sparse.

The stark approaches to marijuana control in the United States and the Netherlands offer the opportunity for an intricate legal and social science analysis. An examination of these divergent policies is important because it implicates, first, the extent to which marijuana, a relatively non-serious drug of abuse, is controlled, and second, the extent to which environmental drug prevention strategies are realized by policymakers in the United States and in the Netherlands. Part I of this essay examines the short- and long-term physical and psychological effects of marijuana use. Part II, first, summarizes the marijuana control philosophy in the United States, and second, examines the prevalence of marijuana use in the United States. Part III first, summarizes the Dutch philosophy on marijuana control, and second, reviews the prevalence of marijuana use in the Netherlands. Part IV discusses the implications of the American and Dutch marijuana control policies in relation to environmental drug prevention strategies.


Marijuana is a greenish-gray mixture of the dried, shredded leaves, stems, seeds, and flowers of Cannabis sativa, the hemp plant (El Sohly et al., 2000). The major active chemical in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which causes the mind-altering effects of marijuana intoxication. The amount of THC determines the potency and, thereby, the effects of marijuana (El Sohly et al., 2000).

Acute Effects of Marijuana

When someone smokes marijuana, THC rapidly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream, which carries the chemical to organs throughout the body, including the brain (Herkenham et al., 1990). There, THC connects to cannabinoid receptors on nerve cells and influences the activity of those cells (Herkenham et al., 1990). Some brain areas have many cannabinoid receptors, while others have few or none. Many cannabinoid receptors are found in the parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thought, concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement (Herkenham et al., 1990).

When marijuana is smoked, its effects begin immediately after the drug enters the brain, lasting between one and three hours (Herkenham et al., 1990). If marijuana is consumed in food or drink, the short-term effects begin more slowly, usually in less than one hour, but may last for as long as four hours. Smoking marijuana deposits several times more THC into the blood than does eating or drinking the drug (Herkenham et al., 1990).

Within minutes of inhaling marijuana, an individual's heart begins to beat more rapidly, the bronchial passages relax and become enlarged, and blood vessels in the eyes expand, making the eyes look red. The heart rate, normally 70 to 80 beats per minute, may increase by 20 to 50 beats per minute or, in some cases, even double (Gilman et al., 1998). This effect can be greater if other drugs are taken contemporaneously with marijuana (Foltin et al., 1987). As THC enters the brain, it causes a user to feel euphoric by acting in the brain's reward system--areas of the brain that respond to stimuli (e.g., food and drink). THC activates the reward system in the same way that nearly all drugs of abuse do, by stimulating brain cells to release the chemical dopamine (French, 1997). …

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