How do we control the drugs economy? Ask Amsterdam

Tough policies have failed, and the Dutch know why. By Rick van der Ploeg
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The Independent Online
Living in Amsterdam, I see lots of British tourists. Although many come to see the Rembrandts and the canals, many also come for the darker delights of life. They visit the red light district, or one of the hundreds of cannabis-selling coffee shops. Presumably, they come for something they cannot get at home.

Prostitution and the sale of cannabis occur openly in clean premises under strict codes. The Dutch, being pragmatic, insist that both sectors pay tax. Prostitution is legal and has a trade union. Drugs are illegal.

Dutch drugs policy distinguishes between soft drugs (hashish, cannabis) and hard drugs (heroin, cocaine, ecstasy). Hard drugs pose an unacceptable health hazard, but soft drugs are far less dangerous. Addiction to soft drugs is rare, and is less common than to sleeping pills or alcohol. Both soft and hard drugs are illegal, but the sale of small quantities (five grams) of soft drugs for personal use is tolerated in coffee shops. They can only sell cannabis and hashish provided they do not sell hard drugs, do not sell to minors, do not cause any nuisance and do not advertise. If coffee shops do not meet these conditions, burgomasters immediately shut them down.

The Dutch police are tough on the production and traffic of drugs. Dutch horticultural expertise has led to the development of Super Skunk, better and cheaper than imported cannabis from Morocco, Lebanon and elsewhere. Although the production of cannabis is tolerated for pain relief, the police clamp down on large-scale growers of cannabis.

The Netherlands is one of the largest producers and exporters of ecstasy in Europe. Ecstasy is a dangerous drug - it causes brain damage and, in overcrowded, badly ventilated dance venues, has led to dehydration and death. Arresting ecstasy producers is a priority; the Dutch are embarrassed about exporting this dangerous drug on such a large scale.

The number of "smart shops" selling Mexican Bold Heads and other psychedelic mushrooms grows rapidly. There are more than 200 shops selling these non-addictive drugs. It is not illegal to sell magic mushrooms provided they are not processed.

Importing and exporting drugs is the most serious offence under the Dutch Opium Act with maximum penalties of four years imprisonment for soft drugs and 12 years for hard drugs, and a fine of 100,000 guilders (pounds 30,000). After the abolition of the internal European border controls of Schengen countries, controls at external borders have been stepped up, especially at Schiphol airport and Rotterdam port. But problems are difficult to tackle as the Netherlands is a densely populated, urbanised and tolerant country long involved in transport and distribution.

Dutch law is tough on producing and trafficking drugs, but the authorities turn a blind eye to the modest consumption of drugs. It seems sensible to licence coffee shops and soft drug producers and use the revenues for harm reduction.

The Dutch approach seems to work. There is less drug use than in restrictive countries such as France or Britain. About two-thirds of British 20 to 22-year-olds say they have used an illegal drug. Among the under 40s, 29 per cent has smoked a joint, 11 per cent has used amphetamines and 4 per cent ecstasy - a lot more than in drugs-tolerant Netherlands.

The economic case for a more liberal drugs policy is clear. During the period 1983-93 heroin cost on average pounds 28 a gram in the Netherlands, but pounds 74 in Britain. By taking drugs out of the criminal circuit, the price falls. Addicts need to steal less, commit fewer criminal offences and cause less nuisance. Citizens feel safer and the taxpayer pays less on police, judges and prisons. If four-fifths of the price of cigarettes is tax, there is no reason soft drugs should not be taxed heavily.

With a more liberal drugs policy, it is easier to give medical aid to users and easier to make prevention and cure schemes work. Experiments are under way to give addicts heroin under medical supervision. Free syringes help minimise HIV infection.

Pragmatic rather than ideological considerations drive Dutch drugs policy. The Dutch cherish individual freedom, and drug use is more a medical than a legal problem. Priority is given to vulnerable groups (especially the young), tackling drug-related nuisance, public order and restricting demand and supply of drugs.

The number of Dutch drugs-related deaths per million inhabitants in 1995 is the lowest in Europe: 2.4 against 9.5 in France, 20 in Germany, 23.5 in Sweden and 27.1 in Spain. The number of hard drug users is the lowest in Europe: 1.6 per cent of the population against 2.6 per cent in Britain and 2.7 per cent in Europe.

Prohibition has failed. Britain needs a more pragmatic, public health- oriented policy based on separating soft and hard drugs and being tough where necessary, tolerant where possible. A less repressive, more open, safer and healthier society results.

q Rick van der Ploeg is a research fellow at the Centre for Economic Policy Research, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Amsterdam and MP for the PvdA (Dutch Labour Party).