Opinion: Let’s talk about drugs

POSTED: 09/3/13 2:11 PM

The discussion about drugs policy is an interesting one. Decades ago already a policeman in Amsterdam called Appie Baantjer called for the decriminalization of drugs, because the damage drug addicts caused to the community in the Dutch capital alone amounted according to him to 10,000 guilders a day – a small fortune in the seventies of last century.

Instead of following Baantjer’s advice, the world decided to go to war against drugs. A pointless and doomed exercise that costs tax payers all over the world truckloads of money while the results are nothing to be proud of.

Hugo van Aalderen analyzed the current situation in a recent op-ed in Trouw. His conclusion: the insight that criminalizing drugs consumption leads to high costs for the community is gaining ground fast. As a former front runner in the drugs debate, the Netherlands is now falling behind.

Van Aalderen notes that the Obama-administration recently announced softer sentences for drugs consumption and drugs dealing. That finally ends the 40-year-old war on drugs and it is a formalization of the worldwide turn in the public opinion about how to handle the drugs issue.

A couple of examples: two American states, Washington and Colorado, have decided to regulate the cultivation of marijuana. Mexico and Colombia are considering legalizing cannabis consumption – thereby following the lead of Uruguay.

In Europe countries like the Czech Republic and Portugal are taking steps to take decriminalize drugs consumption. Now that it has become clear that this war leads to nothing and only results in huge social costs, an increasing number of governments are changing course.

It is important to note, Van Aalderen wrote, that none of these governments are preaching Utopia. Drugs consumption carries certain risks, whereby the health-related risks are carrying the most weight. The new course will not make these risks disappear. But the insight that criminalizing leads to high social costs – like overflowing prisons, uncontrollable illegal trade and health risks – is rapidly gaining ground.

What about the Netherlands? In the seventies of last century when large-scale and open drugs consumption was on the rise, the Netherlands was Europe’s moral watchdog. As a small and developed country the Netherlands developed progressive policies in many areas. The country was with the avant-garde with legalizing abortion, euthanasia and same sex marriage. In this liberal tradition the Dutch drugs policy also became a reality.

From the liberal stand on soft drugs to the distribution of clean injection needles for heroin users the Netherlands developed a unique policy, pragmatically navigating within the maneuvering space offered by international treaties and based on the conviction that dumb criminalizing was not the solution for a social problem. The sensible point of departure was that drugs consumption cannot be eradicated.

The Netherlands made a distinction between dangerous and less dangerous drugs. The most well-known example is the Dutch coffeeshop-policy. It is ambiguous with its front and back door approach, but it keeps cannabis consumption out of the criminal sphere. With a focus on health and an open approach towards the rusks this did not result in more users per capita than in the majority of neighboring countries.

This unique position posed a couple of specific problems for the Netherlands. The front and backdoor construction is a judicial nightmare that is already lasting longer than policy makers ever thought possible. The gray area between legal and illegal the cannabis policy has maneuvered itself into makes the policy vulnerable in the social debate.

Problems that arise from the Dutch policy, like drugs tourism, are used every time to challenge the policy. In a clumsy attempt to limit local nuisance the cannabis policy was dressed up with a weed-pass and the citizens criterion which, by the way, created constitutionally a dubious precedent.

While this policy does not seem sustainable, the cabinet is taking it one step further, Van Aalderen notes. The focus is shifting to security, criminalizing ad repression. The cabinet wants to put cannabis with a THC-content higher than 15 on list 1, where the substance will be on equal footing with heroin. The ministry of justice is doggedly working on legislation that makes preparatory actions – like having lamps and growkits – punishable. There is no scientific foundation for this law-proposal.

Bothe measures are tough to execute, but they are pushing cannabis consumption into illegality. The Netherlands seems to be blind for the fact that globally there is recognition for the added value of a pragmatic approach. That is an approach whereby the Netherlands used to be in the front line. It is astonishing that our government is changing course. Instead of focusing on criminalizing the cabinet ought to reap the fruit of proven effective policy. The Netherlands has to return to its avant-garde role in the global debate about drugs policy and it needs to discuss with international partner the added value of the Dutch approach.

The purpose is not to promote the use of drugs or to downplay the risks. The objective ought to be to arrive at a global approach whereby realistic goals are achieved the lowest possible social costs: lower drugs-related criminality, regulated quality and distribution, lower social costs and better health for cannabis users.


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