Has the debate about drug decriminalisation moved on at all in recent years?

The Netherlands has had a long-standing policy towards the use of cannabis, but the picture is far more complex than it seems, suggests Cherry Casey

Tuesday 05 July 2022 21:30 BST
The Dutch government decided to tolerate small amounts of cannabis possession for recreational use
The Dutch government decided to tolerate small amounts of cannabis possession for recreational use (ANP/AFP/Getty)

At the Holland Pop Festival in Rotterdam, June 1970, 150,000 civilians gathered for three days of performances from Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds and Mungo Jerry. Dubbed the “Dutch Woodstock” it is also widely considered the point from which authorities in the Netherlands began establishing a tolerance toward cannabis. The drug, which was being openly smoked by festival goers, was observed by plain-clothed police officers as one that did not seem to cause any particularly concerning or disruptive behaviour.

It was decided therefore that while the government would not go as far as legalising cannabis, a small amount for recreational use would be tolerated, and could be purchased from specified retailers – the now-famous coffeeshops. In large part, this was to control the use of cannabis rather than push it underground where it would risk becoming a gateway to more harmful drugs.

Arguably, they have had some success on this front: in the 2019 European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) report, there were 262 overdose deaths in the Netherlands in 2017, equating to 22 deaths per million – the European average. In England and Wales, in the same year, there were 3,756 drug-related deaths, equivalent to 66.1 per million. By 2020, this had risen to 4,561 and 79.5 per million, respectively. Staggering figures but perhaps unsurprising given that, in its 2015 report, the EMCDDA found that Britons used more drugs than any other European country.

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