How dutch drug policy went “off the rails”

A few months ago, Foreign Affairs, the famed New York bimonthly, carried an article titled “Holland’s half-baked drug experiment”. It was severely critical of my country’s official drug policy. Citing police officers interviewed for this article, it call Holland “the drug capital of Europe” and notes that “Holland is to synthetic drugs what Colombia is to cocaine”.

I am not going to fiercely defend Holland’s drug policy. Many if not most of the criticisms leveled against it are at least partly justified and should be taken seriously. Nonetheless this much-discussed Dutch drug policy does not only meet repudiation abroad, but also appreciation; for example, in some of the states of federal Germany. And to the best of my knowledge there is no convincing evidence that hard line countries like the United States and France are markedly more successful in their endeavours to clean their societies of narcotics.

The Dutch embarked on their comparatively liberal drug policy in the mid-1970s. The leading idea then was to separate the worlds of soi-disant soft drugs and of so-called hard drugs. Cannabis products were considered not harmless, but much less damaging than heroine, cocaine, and their likes and even less damaging than alcohol and tobacco. So efforts were made to provide soft drug users with a shopping outlet, to keep them from falling prey to drug peddling criminals and to corral them off from hard drug users—in other words to create a congenial environment for the cannabis consumers away from the dirty world of hard drug outdoors.

That is how a network of licensed “coffeeshops” developed (what a euphemistic, not to say hypocritical name, by the way!). In these shops hashish and marihuana could be sold to consumers under certain restrictions: no more than 30 grams (later reduced to 5 grams), no sale to people younger than 18 years of age, no advertising, and a few more. Since 1995, the number of coffeeshops has been substantially reduced. Has this policy met its goals? It does not look like it has. Launched with noble intentions, it has largely failed. Why?

A number of frustrating developments have occurred. A very important one is the emergence of in-house production of cannabis (Nederweit). There has been an explosive growth of home production, according to some estimates up to a hundred tons a year (part of which is exported to neighbouring countries). This has thwarted the policy of moderating cannabis consumption through placing quantitative restrictions on the sales in shops.

This is all the more worrying since this “new style” cannabis is much more potent, hence harmful (it has a much higher THC content) than the old-time products. The demarcation line between soft and hard drugs gets blurred.

Another phenomenon that has raised its ugly head is the switch by many consumers, particularly young people, to various kinds of new drugs, most notably “ecstacy” and amphetamines (“speed”). Ecstacy and speed are ingredients of a new youth culture. They have been firmly linked to house music parties and similar happenings. These new products are synthetic, often fabricated in small laboratories which are hard to track by law enforcement officers. An additional problem is that drugs like ecstacy can readily be re-designed in a laboratory in order to elude the definitions of illicit products inserted in anti-narcotics legislation. In the most recent past, eco-drugs have come into fashion such as the derivates of certain mushrooms.

I should not leave unmentioned that the drugs policy adopted by the Dutch in the 1970s has failed to meet its goals for yet another reason. In too many instances coffeeshops have not been kept in check. As a result the restrictions imposed on their operation have not been effectively enforced. Moreover, the battle against the sale of hard drugs has not been sufficiently determined and consistent. These law enforcement failures have contributed to frustrating the realization of the basic idea of separating in actual practice the world of soft drugs from that of hard drugs.

All this fortifies my opinion that laws and their enforcement are rather blunt weapons in the combat against narcotics. Let it be reiterated therefore that reducing the demand is far more promising than fighting the supply. But how can we achieve substantial demand reduction? Information and education are indispensable tools. Mission impossible? Look at the rapid decline in parts of the industrial world of tobacco consumption. Tobacco has been embedded in our culture for many centuries. Who would have dared predict some decades ago this revolutionary turnabout on tobacco?

It occurs to me that the addiction to consciousness-altering substances has a lot to do with the spiritual vacuum into which much of the western world has plunged. Life is all too often perceived as senseless; many people have lost a sense of direction, do feel disoriented, are desperately groping for guidance and are hankering for an anchorage. One cannot but hope and pray for Europe to land anew on a solid shore in the forthcoming century. Drifting without anchor and compass, to nihilism and amorality, our delapidated civilization has left many young people nearly drowning.

Compounding the problem is the advance of a new technology of self-determination. Anyone is entitled, it preaches, to design his or her life as he or she wishes, even if the chosen lifestyle is destructive of one’s health. This ideology virtually deprives people of their sense of responsibility towards themselves, their next of kin, and society at large. It also implies that it is not our calling to try and protect our brothers and sisters. Again, the notion of responsibility is thus erased, or at least eroded.

Instead, we must bear witness to the value of responsibility as opposed to unfettered individualism and merciless indifference on the part of bystanders. Europe’s moral revival will be largely a matter of resuscitating the awareness of responsibility.

Andreas van Agt, a former prime minister of The Netherlands, delivered this paper at the Fifth Meeting of the Rainbow International Association Against Drugs, at San Patrignano, Italy, in October 1999.