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Saturday, April 01, 2006,2:37 PM
Marijuana in The Netherlands
by Denise Osted

I contacted a number of political parties, addictions organizations, and coffee shops (where marijuana is sold).

Here's what I found out:

Marijuana is decriminalized (not legalized) in The Netherlands. It has been decriminalized for nearly 20 years. The Dutch government, in doing this, was making a distinction between soft and hard drugs, in terms of health problems, addictiveness, and controllability. The Dutch government doesn't believe that soft drug users will inevitably turn to hard drugs (such as cocaine) unless those soft drug users are constantly exposed to a criminal scene where soft and hard drugs have the same level of availability. So they decriminalized marijuana and allowed its sale and purchase in "coffee shops."

In coffee shops, anyone over 18 years can buy small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Import and export of marijuana are illegal, as are sales in large quantities. Coffee shops are not allowed to sell alcohol, or hard drugs. They are also not allowed to advertise, and must not allow their customers to cause a public nuisance. I've been told that the great majority of nuisance complaints are in border towns or tourist areas, where foreigners cause problems.

A large percentage of the population, as well as some political parties, want marijuana to be legalized, so it can be better controlled, and so there can be taxes on soft drugs. Currently, the Dutch government receives taxes from the coffee shops, but not from the sale of the drug itself. The taxes from the coffee shops go to the general government coffers. There is also a fair amount of "weekend tourism" from neighbouring countries, where marijuana is illegal. This drug tourism also contributes to the Dutch government's revenue, and to the general economy of the country.

The Netherlands has experienced some problems with neighbouring countries, including France, Germany, and Sweden, with regards to the Dutch policy on soft drugs. The Dutch feel that a completely successful soft drug legalization strategy will not be forthcoming unless neighbouring countries also adopt these policies.

However, the Dutch strategy of separating hard drugs from soft drugs has been successful. There has been a steady decline in hard drug users, and less than one percent of people under 20 in Amsterdam are using marijuana. A recent survey showed that only 2 to 3% of the Dutch population uses marijuana on a regular basis (at least once a month) compared with 5% in the United States.

Marijuana use, socially, has about the same acceptance as alcohol, and somewhat less acceptance than nicotine (this is a completely unempirical statement based on my own conversations). There are treatment facilities available (under regular health insurance plans) for drug and alcohol addictions.

There was a case here a few years ago where an American couple was visiting The Netherlands. In their absence, the American officials discovered that this couple had used marijuana at home. They demanded that the couple be returned to the States immediately, but the Dutch government refused to extradite them for something which is not a crime in this country. I can't find the details of the case, but as far as I know, that couple is still living here.

Small-scale growers and coffee-shop owners are quick to point to the inconsistency in the system, whereby the purchase, sale, and possession of small amounts of marijuana are decriminalized, as is its use, but wherein it is illegal (and prosecutable) to either import, export, or grow marijuana in any significant quantity. The Dutch government has thus far resisted creating more logical laws in this area because of pressure in the international arena, politics, and some treaties.

When The Netherlands first decriminalized marijuana, they had to provide neighbouring countries with assurances that they would minimize potential harm to their neighbours. However, it seems to me that the conflicts between governments on this issue are arising from differing definitions of "harm." The main problem neighbouring countries seem to have is that marijuana does get illegally exported from The Netherlands. It is, however, my own belief that this would be a problem even if marijuana was completely criminalized. Twenty-five percent of all goods entering or leaving Europe do so through The Netherlands, by way of Schiphol, or the ports at Rotterdam and Amsterdam. This gives a huge opportunity for smuggling goods of all kinds, especially when you consider the volume going through the ports and airport every single day.

I'd just like to emphasize again here that the reason The Netherlands implemented this soft drug policy in the first place was to make drug use safer to individual users, their environment, and the society at large. They call this policy the "principle of harm reduction." The Dutch government makes a very strong distinction between hard and soft drugs, and this tolerance and decriminalization applies solely to marijuana. The Dutch government feels that hard drug use has an unacceptable accompanying risk to the user and the society, and thus aims to keep soft drug (marijuana) users out of the far more dangerous, violent, addictive, and criminal hard drug scene. There are educational campaigns against drug, alcohol, and nicotine use in this country, aimed primarily at youth, and these campaigns are an integral part of the decriminalization process (these campaigns emphasize education, prevention, taking responsibility for one's own health, and resisting peer pressure). For those of you who see an inconsistency in this, let me point out the huge anti-smoking and anti-alcohol campaigns in Canada and the United States, both countries where alcohol and tobacco companies are a huge part of the economy.

Another piece of the education and prevention arm of the Dutch drug policy is that there is an attempt to avoid sensationalization. By presenting facts in a clear way, the Dutch government is in fact removing a certain allure from the use of addictive substances, particularly with regard to youth. I'd like to add here that I have noticed this emphasis on the ability of the individual to make informed decisions about her or his own life is strongly prevalent in The Netherlands, as opposed to some other countries where it seems that more people are willing to unquestioningly accept the moral guidelines set down by the government. The Dutch don't believe you have to scare somebody into behaving, and they don't use scare tactics to convince people that drugs are evil. By scare tactics, I mean such things as the stepping-stone theory popular in many countries, whereby the public is told that soft drug users will eventually move on to harder and more dangerous drugs. We all know by now that caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol are highly addictive, yet who among us would argue that your average heavy coffee drinker is going to be a heroin addict ten years down the line? The biggest factor which leads to beginning hard drug use is, according to the Dutch government, the social situations in which one finds oneself, as well as a lack of knowledge about the substances in question. Thus, by decriminalizing marijuana, and establishing coffee shops where its use is divorced from the hard drug scene, people are removed from the pressures and dangers of obtaining marijuana illegally. Young people who want to experiment with marijuana, for example, are not required to come into contact with hard drug dealers in order to do so.

One thing which seems to me to characterize the whole Dutch government's policy on and attitude toward drugs is an absolute refusal to bury its head in the sand. The government is fully aware that no attempts to prevent, punish, and eliminate drug use will ever be completely successful. It has therefore decided that the best way to approach the situation is to determine how harmful marijuana is and then to allow its use in a controlled way. This attitude is also visible in the way the Dutch government combats hard drugs; rather than cracking down on the end users, it attempts - quite successfully - to infiltrate the system and arrest the big dealers. In this way, individuals are not criminalized for their addiction. The extensive assistance available to addicts is a natural extension of this attitude.

A side-effect of the Dutch drug policy is that the Dutch have developed certain attitudes toward drug users. While soft drug use is widely accepted (though not always welcomed), the Dutch are increasingly less tolerant of addicts who use their addiction to commit crimes against people and property. The general feeling is that there is enough help and support available for drug addicts (and here I am most certainly including hard drug addicts as well as alcoholics), that addiction cannot in any way be used as an excuse for criminal, anti-social, or in other ways destructive behaviour.

The decriminalization of marijuana has not led to an increase in use. The level of use stabilized in the early 1980's and has remained at that level. Because of the legislation, however, some effects of drug use, such as addiction, are perhaps more visible in this country than elsewhere.

My own subjective take on the matter is that The Netherlands has done a really good job with this policy. I think it would work better if marijuana was legalized, but even as it stands, it works well. Among the people I have met in my year here, I see a smaller percentage of regular marijuana users than I was familiar with in Canada. In addition, while a fair amount of heavy Canadian marijuana users could easily find the nearest hard drug dealer (whether they used hard drugs or not), and went to elaborate extremes to avoid detection by police, landlords, or family members, the attitude here is much more relaxed. Buying marijuana is as simple and safe as going to the local store for a bottle of wine. People's attitude about marijuana use may be welcoming or disapproving, but it never reflects an idea of criminality or anti-societal behaviour. There are no clandestine meetings where money furtively changes hands just for a gram of weed, with both parties looking over their shoulders. Marijuana is easily available for people with pain or terminal illnesses. The resources of the police are put to better use chasing down big criminals rather than individuals who just want to smoke a joint (which, ultimately, is pretty much equivalent to having a few alcoholic drinks).
posted by R J Noriega
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