I need to stop scratching my head and finish this, damn it...
There used to be a term "propaganda by the deed." It was an idea of anarchists that, by assassinating the powerful and blowing up major institutions and so on, you could show the masses that the existing order of society was in fact vulnerable and inspire them to rise up and sweep it all away.
This term, irritatingly, has absolutely nothing to do with the way I would want to use the phrase on the subject I was just thinking of. Perhaps "propaganda by policy", instead?
The rise of the right in Dutch politics, fueled by anti-immigration fervor, is a factor that has fueled an effort, over time in small stages, to dismantle the Netherlands' policy of pragmatic tolerance about victimless vices and disapproved-of things. One widely-known focus is the tolerated sale and consumption of still-formally-illegal marijuana in the famous marijuana cafes and coffeeshops of Amsterdam.
The problem faced by those who have wanted to end this is: How do you persuade the Netherlands that this is, in fact, a bad idea?
Because such a change of the Dutch public's view is necessary for the change in policy, and is also most ardently desired by those who support the change.
But: Rates of use of marijuana, in both teens and adults, are lower than the rates of use in countries that ferociously battle marijuana availability, for example the United States and Great Britain.
And: marijuana usage rates in the Netherlands dropped after the initiation of these policies.
I don't think it's taking a terribly biased slant to say that this would seem to support the proposition that the Dutch way of doing things has been a good idea, at least in that country, even if the premise is granted that marijuana use is bad. This makes things inconvenient for those Dutch who want their countryfolk to find marijuana, and pragmatic tolerance policies, to be - intolerable.
So. What to do? How do you go about this?
Well, you can vociferously dispute those statistics. But it's also possible to be clever.
I have been talking to myself for a couple of weeks about the most recent manifestation.
Now, a Dutch commission has found that hashish and marijuana on sale in the Netherlands contain around 18 percent of THC, the main psychoactive substance, and advised the health minister that anything above 15 percent put drugs on a par with heroin or cocaine.
"I've been very worried for years about the THC concentration, especially if it is so high. We will take a serious look at it," Health Minister Edith Schippers told public broadcaster NOS.
"The addictive consequences are much stronger and severe. Clearly this is a worrying development."
Dear me. That sounds bad!
There are two very different things to say about this:
1. It's balderdash. It's unusually complete balderdash. When marijuana is strong, or when hashish is smoked, the smoker smokes less of it to get the THC effect. This is called titrating the dose. It is what people who commonly drink a pint of beer do when they have whisky. And that is really all that happens.
(One might also point out that, if one is worried about taking smoke into the lungs: with strong marijuana you inhale much less smoke because you smoke so much less. The growers who have bred more potent strains have, if anything, been improving the health picture.)
"The addictive consequences are much stronger and severe"? How and why, exactly, would that happen? Why would that be? For what it's worth, in the reading I've done of research reviews by the National Academy of Sciences and other places, I've never seen any suggestion that the psychological addictiveness of marijuana varies with the potency (for the love of Mike, we are talking about habituation, aren't we, not physical addiction?); you are certainly welcome to look; by all means don't trust my impression that I've checked... but, again, why would it be? I would say that this is the sort of thing that is believed by someone who hasn't considered that it would be otherwise.
And "on a par with heroin or cocaine"... it is the same thing with the same effects as before, only taken in with fewer puffs rather than with more. There is no magical change to the chemistry or the neurochemistry, and nothing magically makes the user imbibe more THC than s/he would otherwise.
I have spent too much time on this point... but it's the urge to jump up and down and emphasize, because it's so simple. Unlike many things that come up in discourse that are largely or mostly unfounded, there is absolutely nothing here.
2. It works, and it polls well. In the United States this proposition to furtive-looking parents that "marijuana is different than it was in your day; it's so much stronger" has sold very well.
(By the way, I've looked up Edith Schippers, and she does not appear to be a doctor. She's a career politician who got the Health Minister job.)
It is instructive to look at how this movement has proceeded up to now.
From what I can assemble, the first successful move was to say that the cafes should not be within a certain distance of schools.
Never mind, as I say, usage rates among youth being comparatively (internationally) and absolutely (nationally) low no matter where the cafes had been located up to then. But: it sounded reasonable enough.
And, indeed, proximity between drugs and schools has been a major motivator in countries worldwide. So... certainly.
But, once that requirement had been passed, the implication that the cafes were a problem that needed to be managed was embedded in the fact of their handling. After all, they need to be kept away from schools.
The next thing that was done was to boost and harness the Netherlanders' discomfort with sometimes-unruly tourists from across the border and abroad coming in to go to the cafes and get marijuana. This was useful in defining the cafes as creating a problem. I do not know exactly how much of a problem there really was, but, as witness the psychological shape that, for example, immigration-threat-type debates usually take, it's the image of the problem that matters.
So, after much discussion, a development just this year has been that, by the end of the year, only Dutch citizens will be able to go to the cafes, and they'll have to get membership cards. (The bureau of tourism's protests have been of no avail.) These cafes will now be, "as clearly necessary," more carefully controlled and managed.
And now this: this assertion that - oh my God! THC content can sometimes be over fifteen percent! (About hashish, which is compressed resin glands from the plant, this would never have been news.) That's dangerous! That makes it like hard drugs!
Like I say, it is a framing that does "sell."
But, tell me - to whatever extent that takes hold - once it does: If cannabis with a potency of 15% becomes so dangerous and intolerable - dangerous and intolerable far, far beyond what whisky or rum is... if that's taken to be true...
... then how safe can cannabis of 14% or 10% or lower concentrations really be? Aren't we really then talking about low doses of a dangerous hard drug?
And so it goes. Framing precedent by framing precedent.
It has actually taken me weeks now to finish writing this. The reason it's been so delayed is because of a problem: I cannot be sure about how to characterize how sincere the players are.
To be sure, this progression in the Netherlands looks to me like conscious, patient, clever strategy. It looks to me like someone intelligent has been thinking about the problem, and has done a lot of reading about how, for example, the sale of the War On Drugs has worked in America and Great Britain, and has been attending to the issue and making recommendations accordingly.
But then there is the motivation for it... and the motivation is certainly real. And all the manifestations that I've mentioned have all been completely sincere and spontaneously arising. And strong, God knows.
Turn them the other way in the light, and the transparency of them does not look like evidence of conscious distortion as opposed to sincere illusion, but the very image of sincere illusion.
For example, there is a columnist here in Portland, Susan Nielsen, who wrote a couple of pieces against an initiative last year (that has since failed) that would have allowed and established a system of medical marijuana dispensaries here. (We already have a medical-marijuana law, but how the patients are supposed to get the stuff is a bit woogly.) It did not strike me that she was speaking consciously manipulatively, apart from the intent in any op-ed. But she said a couple of odd things. No, I would not class any and all anti-pot assertions as "odd", I should say somewhere in here. But...
She referred to a large number of expected medical marijuana dispensaries, and she said that that number was far, far too many.
My problem was that, when I looked at this, something seemed to be missing. How many would be the right number, or a proper number?
And ... how many liquor stores (liquor of course being legal) would be too many? There might, in fact, from some angle and for some reason, be some number of liquor stores that would be too many and would be destructive. But you'd want to know the specific reason. And it would not follow that there would automatically intuitively be a problem with any particular number or density of liquor stores.
Even the easiest resolution - that, unlike with legal liquor, medical marijuana dispensaries would have to be watched and checked to make sure that sales were to medical cardholders, and a lot of dispensaries would need a lot of watchers (but then, don't liquor stores also have to be watched and checked to make sure they don't sell to minors?) - was not specified. The reason for the "too many" of the too many marijuana dispensaries was left more... floating.
As if... Well. It seemed to me that you wouldn't put weight on a scary number of medical marijuana dispensaries unless there was something scary about medical marijuana dispensaries, and likewise about medical marijuana, and likewise about marijuana. Which she did not talk about. It was oddly assumed - it was there. She just talked about this scary number. She actually said it made her stomach queasy.
This got odder to me when she said something about a proposed required distance from schools: that that proposed distance from schools would mean little if there were a very large number of dispensaries just beyond that line. ...Which conjured up a picture of a looming row of dispensaries poised across this line like football players ready for a rush.
To argue with the scariness she was talking about, you would have to talk with her about what she was actually scared of and would have to put a shape on the fear or the worry. She herself put no shape on it; she did not bring it up. She just talked about the number - and used that as an objective-consideration-sounding hook to hang the scariness on.
Here I do not think "craftiness". I think Susan Nielsen was writing from the heart, as far as it goes, and this is what happened.
So I suppose that there could really be no clever strategist in a thin tie somewhere in Dutch political circles. What we're seeing could be a bunch of people gradually selling their own genuine phantoms, which happen to be phantoms that are quite sellable.
I don't know. Because then I turn it back the other way in the light, and I see the distaste and outrage that some of these people must have at the tolerance policies in the Netherlands. I have watched the same thing in some people here. Not just a general reaction to marijuana, to the specific issue. (This issue wouldn't engage my attention nearly as much if it were just that.) An angry, righteous desire and view that - when something is bad - it's BAD. A desire for morals to matter, as they would say it. A view that they are right. And a view of the status - and of the proper power, the defining power - and of the proper place in society and law - of disapproval.
I think of this anger and frustration and sense of moral rightness. I think of it looking at the way things have been in their country.
And when I think of that, I think again of clever, determined people working step by step.