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Amsterdam: Messing up a good thing?

Recent news of Amsterdam’s plans to close a number of brothels and coffeeshops (that sell pot) in the central district raise some interesting questions. Their purpose according to the plan is to clean up the unappealing aspects of their city center to make it more appealing to tourists and clamp down on organized crime.

The Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular, have for decades been known for their very open tolerance towards personal vices that many other countries have, over the past 90 to 100 years, tried various prohibitions against. Many people, particularly religious groups, have been very vocal in criticizing these policies and have for years put pressure on The Netherlands to repeal these policies and institute prohibitions.

The standard critiques have been that The Netherlands policies promote human trafficking and drug use among teens and others.

As far as drug use The Netherlands is actually below average. According to a UNICEF study of OECD countries conducted in 2007 about 21% of 11 – 15 year olds in the Netherlands had smoked pot in the past year while 31% of these kids in the US have. 35% of this age group in the UK have and 40% in Canada. The Netherlands scores equally well or better in other studies. It would appear that the coffeeshops may actually have a bit of a deterrent effect. This sometimes attributed to Dutch teens seeing people stoned in coffeeshops and finding it unappealing or the knowledge that they can always try it later if they want so there’s no need to rush to do it ‘while I have the opportunity’.

On the prostitution front the city’s plans to close down some brothels is even more interesting. Every study I have read on the harmful impacts of prostitution in The Netherlands indicates that The Netherlands has far fewer problems than other countries. Numerous studies by DSP- Groep, WODC, Regioplan Beleidsonderzoek, and Intraval have found extremely low incidences of human trafficking and underage prostitution. Across a broad spectrum of other issues these reports say that continuing the current policy of legal and open prostitution is far superior to the problems caused by prohibition.

Some, including Saint Augustin and Saint Thomas Aquinas, believe that legal prostitution is necessary to reduce problems of rape. Per capita The Netherlands has about 9 rapes per 100,000 people while the US has 33 per 100,000 (all OECD countries with legal prostitution average 11.3). Since Sweden criminalized prostitution in 1999 their incidences of rape have increased twofold. Will this clamping down also ratchet up rapes in The Netherlands?

The authorities in The Netherlands want to trade in a real society that has very few social problems for a veneer that they think will be more appealing to tourists. They want their city center to look better and cleaner and they’re willing to risk their very successful and strong social fabric to do it.

One of the more perplexing aspects of this plan is that Amsterdam is already one of the top tourists spots in the world, particularly relative to its size. People come not just because of the coffeeshops and prostitution, which is for better or worse a popular draw, and not just because of other equally or more popular attractions such as Amsterdam’s architecture and museums or the Anne Frank House. People come to see a society that has so very successfully integrated all of these things. As one travel agent pointed out to me this morning, take away the intriguing Red Light Districts and Coffeeshops and Amsterdam will become second fiddle to a number of other popular tourist cities.

Will a 22% reduction in coffeeshops, which is the plan, reduce or eliminate the apparently positive impact on illicit drug use among Dutch teens? Will clamping down on legal prostitution drive more of the industry underground and increase human trafficking and underage prostitution?

I’m in no way a supporter of prostitution or illicit drug use, but I do believe in a certain level of pragmatism, especially when the harms of policies such as social prohibitions are so detrimental to societies.

Stay Tuned…

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