I’m currently in a city rife with drugs and rampant with prostitution–yet I feel safer here than I did in either London or Paris. In fact, over 90 percent of Amsterdam’s residents report that they feel safe in their city, while the denizens of Paris, London, Dublin, and Berlin gave their respective cities lower marks. Only Scandinavian cities such as Copenhagen and Stockholm have a better perceived sense of safety.

It’s remarkable–much to the chagrin of social conservatives–how legalizing marijuana and prostitution, and recognizing same-sex marriage (circa. 2001) haven’t unraveled the social fabric of this tiny, quiet Northern European outpost. A small trading village in the 12th century, Amsterdam grew into a major European port over the centuries by luring foreigners with its relative tolerance. It’s still a small city by international standards, counting only 1.36 million in its entire metropolitan area.

So how does modern-day Gomorrah avoid collapsing into a giant gaping sink hole that leads to hell? How, in other words, can the low crime rate be explained?

Actually, statistically speaking, Amsterdam is the crime-infested cesspool imagined by the Religious Right. It has the third highest number of registered crimes per 1000 residents among large European cities. The number of registered crimes per 1000 is an entirely different metric from the measure of perceived security I cited above. More people report crimes in Amsterdam than in other European cities, but its citizens still feel safer than those in Paris or London. It’s just that people in Amsterdam are more likely to report crimes. Oh, and about 9000 bike thefts–a significant seven percent chunk of the total–are registered by the police each year. The thieves here, like the people, love bikes.

An intelligent social conservative (one of few) would interject: Firstly, Amsterdam does indeed have high crime, as the numbers show. This conservative would also add that Amsterdam cheats on its crime stats, since by legalizing the sale of marijuana and sex it effectively underreports crime statistics in relation to other European cities, which do count prostitution- and drug-related offences in their books.

And yes, the conservative is right on both counts. Statistics don’t lie. But that raises the larger question of what is a crime, anyway? (What is “is,” anyway?) We call certain acts crimes because they either they have a deleterious social effect–gambling, prostitution–or because they harm others–murder, rape–or because they do both.

In the U.S., weed is illegal because it is presumed to have a negative impact on society by fostering a criminal drug trade and by impacting the health and productivity of its citizens. The Netherlands’ experience undercuts those two assumptions. If you legalize it, there’s no criminal supply chain, and thus a smaller drug trade. As for health and productivity arguments, they’re easily challenged. Gross Domestic Product per hour–how much is created by hour worked measured in U.S. dollars–is 55.5 and 55.3 in the Netherlands and the U.S., respectively. I’m not even going to bother comparing life expectancy between the two countries; America’s failing health care system allows me to assume the worst.

With no practical health or productivity drawbacks of legalizing marijuana, why hasn’t the U.S. or any other Western country legalized marijuana? It boils down to the fact that the Dutch are just more lax. As with weed, they’re also less concerned about safety–a perception that in turn fosters a safer, freer society.

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