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The United States Ambassador Tells The Truth About Holland PDF Print E-mail
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Grey Literature - DPF: Drug Prohibition & Conscience of Nations 1990
Written by John Shad   
Monday, 01 October 1990 00:00

Dutch perceptions of the contrast between the dramatic worsening of the American drug situation and that of the Netherlands tend to reinforce their attitudes and convictions, regarding the drug phenomenon, that their national policy to confront it is on a true course. There is virtually no market for crack. Authorities are confident that local conditions, general knowledge of the American experience, and the national policy have forged barricades against the development of a major crack market here. Dutch policymakers attribute the perceived successes of their drug policy to its public-health orientation; to its extensive system of addkt identification, therapy, counseling, and social reintegration; to the national social welfare regime; and to their prioritized enforcement of the narcotics laws.

The fundamental difference in Dutch drug policy is its demand-oriented approach to the problem which focuses on the drug abuser. He (or she) is dealt with more as a health and social problem than as a criminal. The Ministry of Public Health estimates the population of "hard drug addicts" at 15,000. Thirty to forty percent of those addicted are foreign nationals resident here.

There is some manufacture of synthetic illicit drugs in the Netherlands, but the major drug problem is the volume of trafficking through the country to other destinations. The Dutch topography and its extensive transport network present formidable interdiction challenges. Around 130 criminal organizations in the Netherlands deal in drugs and traffickers are ethnically differentiated. Chinese, Turkish, and Pakistani organizations deal most of the heroin, Latin Americans and Surinamese service the growing cocaine traffic, and Dutch nationals dominate the marijuana and hashish trade.

There have been numerous calls for legalization of "hard drugs" (heroin, cocaine, and the psychotropics) on the one extreme and strict enforcement against all drugs, including "soft" cannabis products, on the other. Thus far, the Netherlands has chosen a middle way: Enforcement against hard drugs, official tolerance of soft drugs, and "decriminalization" of users....

Trafficking and Local Consumption

Dutch perceptions of illicit narcotics activities are divided into two distinct categories: those regarding trafficking into and through their country and those surrounding the question of domestic substance abuse.

Dutch attitudes toward trafficking closely mirror those of the U.S. government and of neighboring states in the European community. Dutch enforcement authorities consider their country particularly vulnerable to trafficking. They recall the complex and infmitely permeable coastline, the immense volume of maritime and riverine cargo flowing through the port of Rotterdam, the vast rail and highway networks distributing goods all over Europe, and the numbers of passengers and amount of air freight transiting Amsterdam's Schiphol International Air Terminal. These officials — who already often feel overwhelmed — express anxiety over the abolition of internal borders within the 12 states of the European Community, scheduled for the beginning of 1993. The necessary strengthening of the European outer perimeter and gateways — including the Dutch coast, the port of Rotterdam, and Schipol Airport — implies an EC-wide standardization and toughening of enforcement policy. This in turn will require formidably higher levels of financial, manpower, material, and technical resources.

In terms of dealing with the issue of internal demand and substance abuse, Dutch perceptions and policy vary radically from those held by the U.S. government and indeed by most other European states. Drug and other substance abuse is recognized here as one among many social problems. ..certainly not the most serious. Alcohol and tobacco abuse and traffic accidents, for example, claim far larger annual numbers of deaths in the Netherlands than does drug abuse. Incest, child abuse, petty crime, euthanasia, homosexual issues, prostitution, and AIDS all claim shares of public attention and resources as well.

Demand-Oriented Policy

The fundamental difference in Dutch drug policy is its demand-oriented approach to the problem as opposed to the supply-oriented approach favored by the United States and many other countries. The latter centers on substance eradication, law enforcement, and punitive considerations. Dutch policy focuses on the drug abuser. It views him primarily as an unfortunate with health and social problems rather than primarily as a criminal. It attempts to keep him "above ground" and it wants him within reach of medical authority. The policy attempts to stabilize his life and to limit the damage he causes to society, to family and to himself. It encourages and provides immediate therapy — virtually upon demand whenever he is ready for it — including methadone maintenance, free needle-exchange to reduce the risk of AIDS and hepatitis infection if he is an intravenous abuser, counseling, and residential or out-patient long-term treatment Finally, and when possible, it assists his eventual reintegration into society. The policy is often mistranslated and misinterpreted as "indulgent" or "permissive." In fact, in this society, it operates as a powerful social control. Speaking to local audiences a senior official of the justice ministry expressed the Dutch position this way:

If you think about drugs in a dogmatic way, assistance of course remains a form of heresy. AIDS is the only reason why other countries are joining us, very cautiously.
Other significant features of the Netherlands' social and economic landscape which differentiate Dutch drug perceptions and policy are the presence of a pervasive national social-welfare network.. .and the absence of anything approaching slum conditions anywhere in the country. Dutch authorities perceive high profile anti-drug campaigns to be counterproductive. They believe that such efforts tend to stimulate "perverse demand" in adventurous youth. Therefore, drug education is kept low-key. Educators mix the topic into a broad matrix of other social survival information: sex education, teenage pregnancy and its prevention, venereal disease, child abuse and incest, AIDS prevention, alcohol and tobacco abuse.

Separation of Markets

Finally, the system attempts to maintain a wall between the market for "soft drugs" (cannabis products) and that for "hard drugs" (all others). This facet of the policy derives from evidence that substances exist on a continuum ranging from the relatively benign to the highly dangerous. Tobacco, marijuana, hashish, and alcohol repose on the relatively less risky side of the scale; on the more dangerous end lie hashish oil, the psychotropics, cocaine and heroin. Enforcement resources are prioritized from the lowest (adult users of soft drugs) to the highest (hard-drug drug dealers operating near school grounds). The separation of markets policy is a classic channeling technique: it acknowledges pharmacological differences between drugs, it "deromanticizes" drug use by creating tolerated outlets for youthful marijuana smokers while minimizing their exposure to hard-drug channels, and it concentrates enforcement and judicial resources against the most serious classes of drug offenders.

Public Support for Current Policy

In a vigorous participatory democracy such as the Netherlands which enjoys a free and inquisitive press, there appears to be little daylight between official and popular perceptions of the drug ism-le. Significantly, the narcotics policy is not and has not been a political issue within the country. A broad social and political consensus seems to endorse its efficacy and favor its continuation. However, some groups do oppose it vociferously and lobby against it, usually on moral or religious grounds. Justified protests have arisen recently among Amsterdam residents against the nuisance of open drug use in their neighborhoods. In typical pragmatic fashion, local officials likely will endeavor to find a less public and objectionable venue for the addicts rather than overhaul the policy.

American and Dutch Contrasts

Dutch authorities, who often visit the United States, view the current drug situation in American metropolitan areas with acute sympathy and dismay.

They contrast their own national experience — and policy — with ours. Their convictions are reinforced by their reading of the evidence which convinces them that, up to now, U.S. drug policy has been a spectacular failure. They sometimes express annoyance with visitors to the Netherlands bearing pre-set agendas who credit the unique history, society, and culture of the Netherlands for its relative immunity from the drug scourge... but then condemn the policy.

Virtually No Crack Abuse

Dutch enforcement and policy authorities reject prophecies of tidal waves of cocaine and crack soon to come crashing over Holland. They readily grant the formidable trafficking and interdiction challenge presented by these drugs, most of which are destined for other markets. But they are convinced that their policy has insulated the Netherlands from significant new demand for crack and cocaine. They point to the relatively small local market for cocaine and virtually none for crack, the low cocaine-toheroin abuse ratio, declining numbers of young people experimenting with any form of drugs, the rising average age and stable number of the resident addict population, and the negligible numbers of drug overdose deaths (60 to 80 per year) and AIDS cases (currently around 800, of which about 65 are intravenous drug abusers). They do express concern about increases in any of these drug use indicators. But increases are registered over extraordinarily low benchmarks for a population of nearly 15 million.

The Dutch play unwilling host to thousands of West German addicts...nearly 40 percent of the Dutch national total. Not surprisingly, the Dutch consider these visitors to have been pushed across the border by the FRG's tough enforcement policy. The Germans, in turn, point to the "magnetic pull" of Dutch policy for addicts.

United States Interests

The primary goal for the United States is to encourage and enhance, by all feasible means, ongoing cooperative efforts with the Dutch in anti-trafficking activities. In light of our own problems, a secondary goal for United States policymakers might be an educational one. It is unlikely that many elements of Dutch drug policy successfully could be wrenched out of their social and cultural contexts. However, certain of the mechanics such as low threshold therapy, mobile treatment units, and needle exchange might well be adaptable to the American reality.

*John Shad, U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, Annual Narcotics Status Report for 1988, May 26, 1989.


Our valuable member John Shad has been with us since Saturday, 10 March 2012.