Bob Keizer: These nothing soft about Dutch drugs policy

From a speech by a Dutch government drugs adviser at the Cannabis: Shaping a New Agenda conference, held in Liverpool

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To understand Dutch drug policy it is essential to know something of the Netherlands, as policies are in keeping with the characteristics and culture of the country that produces them. The Dutch have a strong belief in individual freedom and in the division between "church" (in other words, morality) and state. We believe in pragmatism and have a strong sense of responsibility for collective welfare. Our administrative system is decentralised to the local authorities to a large extent, particularly where drug policy is concerned.

These characteristics are reflected in our present drug policy, which was formulated in the mid-Seventies. A wide range of addict-care facilities is available. Dutch policy does not moralise, but is based on the assumption that drug use is a fact and must be dealt with as practically as possible. Our most important objective is to prevent, or to limit, the risks and harm associated with drug use, both to the user himself and to his environment. Because of this, the Ministry of Health is responsible for co-ordinating drug policy.

Many people think that drugs are legally available in the Netherlands and that we make no effort to combat the supply side of the drug market. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is continual intensive co-operation between the addict-care system, the judicial authorities and the public administrators. With the exception of small-scale cannabis dealing in coffee shops, since 1976, tackling all other forms of drug dealing and production has high priority.

Cannabis use in the Netherlands, as in all other countries, has increased in recent years and the age at which users start has gradually decreased. There are, however, signs that cannabis use is stabilising and even decreasing in the Netherlands. The trend towards increased use and the present scale of use are comparable with those in the surrounding countries of Germany, France and Belgium and certainly lower than those in the UK and the US.

Thanks to a high standard of care and prevention, including the large-scale dispensation of methadone and clean hypodermics, the number of hard drug (heroin or cocaine) addicts, stabilised about 10 years ago, at the level of 2.5 per 1,000 inhabitants. This means that the Netherlands is among the three countries, after Finland and Germany, with the smallest number of problem addicts in the European Union. Although not an ideal policy, bearing in mind our objective of harm limitation, our drugs policy is reasonably successful.

Coffee shop policy is administered locally. Many of the petty criminal problems surrounding the coffee shops can be traced back to the fact that local administrators and police did not really know how the policy should be pursued. Hardly surprising since the coffee shops are still operating in an administrative no-man's land. Sales of cannabis "at the front door" are not legal, but they are tolerated. However, purchases "at the back door" do not fall under this policy of tolerance. In practice, this means that the coffee shop owner is forced to buy the cannabis on the illegal market. Therefore something that is forbidden is nonetheless tolerated. The mayors, police chiefs and politicians continue to support the concept and there is debate now about allowing a system of cultivation of cannabis to supply a limited number of coffee shops.

Closing the coffee shops would certainly lead to an increase in dealing on the streets, in private homes and in school playgrounds. This would undoubtedly be accompanied by hard drug sales, while the rate of use among the population would not decline, bearing in mind the figures for use in other countries.

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