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Their Spirit Of Moderation And Experimentation Is Unmatched PDF Print E-mail
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Grey Literature - DPF: Drug Prohibition & Conscience of Nations 1990
Written by Arnold Trebach   
Monday, 01 October 1990 00:00

The Dutch actually set out to attempt a courageous experiment in drug-policy reform. I was able to observe it myself during July 1977 and again in September 1986. My last visit was particularly dramatic because I left my own country during the scared summer of 1986 and went to another that seemed as if it were in some distant, more peaceful galaxy. The Dutch have not solved their drug problems but they have gone further in rational control than any nation of which I am aware. They have consciously adopted a series of peaceful compromises and have rejected the idea of a war on drugs.

During the early 1970s, they commenced seemingly risky reforms that were based upon a view of drug use quite different than that held in America and most European countries. The Dutch saw marijuana "as a stepping stone to hard drugs" but not, according to Frits Rüter, Director of the Institute of Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam, because of the qualities of the drug itself. Rather, Professor Rüter explained, it was because the law forced marijuana "into the criminal sphere in common with hard drugs and. was sold in the same place and frequently by the same dealers." Through changes in the substantive law and detailed written guidelines for police and prosecutors, the Dutch set about to break that connection. The legal reforms reduced penalties for simple possession of pot and increased them for large scale dealing. Yet, possession and small sales of marijuana still remained, technically speaking, illegal. It was the sophisticated use of police and prosecutorial discretion that made the difference.

Indeed, these experiments could not have worked without the strong support of enforcement officials. It was disorienting for me, after talking to so many American police, to be sought out by police leaders at an Amsterdam Conference in September 1986 and to be told how much they believed in the use of discretion in allowing possession and small sales of marijuana, while vigorously pursuing organized crime figures and large traffickers who were involved in the trade of any drug, including marijuana. Such was the outspoken position expressed to me by, for example, two of the highest police executives in the Netherlands: W.F.KJ.F. Frackers, Inspector-General, Dutch National Police, and G.F. de Gooyer, the head of the National Criminal Intelligence Service. Both saw themselves as committed police leaders who could be more effective by taking a calm, flexible approach to the drug problem, which had to commence with distinguishing between marijuana and harder drugs. Both resented the attitude of the police of other nations, including those from the American Drug Enforcement Agency, who saw them as soft on drugs. They were not soft, they told me; they were smart. I agree with them.

I have seen with my own eyes how "house dealers" in youth clubs are allowed to sell marijuana and hashish and also how coffee shops all over Dutch cities sell these products right off the menu. The symbol of a marijuana plant on a sign tells the public that the products are for sale inside. The key is moderation and control, not prohibition and repression. I saw a coffeehouse with a marijuana plant painted on its sign within sight of the Ministry of Justice building in The Hague, the seat of government for the country. Any youth can walk in at any time and make a purchase under the eyes of the police. At the same time, I saw that the coffee shops were usually half empty and the youth centers were busy mainly on weekends. One American told me that he lived in Holland for six months near both a school with teenage students and a coffeehouse that sold marijuana. He never saw a single student in the coffeehouse during school hours.

While Dutch criminal-justice and drug-abuse experts are independent characters and openly disagree on many things, there is almost universal agreement among them — including police leaders — that they have largely solved the marijuana problem. Their optimism and my personal observations from wandering the streets and coffeehouses of Dutch cities are supported by objective survey research. The use of marijuana by Dutch youth has dropped since the 1970s. Today, it seems to be substantially less than in those countries — especially West Germany, Norway, and the United States — that have undertaken a campaign to castigate the Dutch with the objective of forcibly enlisting them in the war on drugs.

Although the statistics are by no means precisely comparable, those collections of data that are available suggest dramatic contrasts. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports for 1983 stated that 5.5 percent of American high school seniors interviewed said that they used pot daily. In 1983 the prestigious Foundation for the Scientific Study of Alcohol and Drug Use, located in Amsterdam, released a study of use throughout the country. A total of 1,306 residents between the ages of 15 and 24 were interviewed in 1983, with the great majority in the 15-19 age category. Seven youngsters replied that they used pot or hashish daily — 1/2 of 1 percent of the 1$06 young people who had full access to these drugs without fear of legal sanction. This rate was less than 10 percent of the rate for the United States where marijuana remains illegal and where the government is waging a war against use of the drug, especially by youth.

I do not know if that low comparative rate would be supported precisely by other studies today. I do know that the youth of the Netherlands have not been harmed by one of the most tolerant drug policies of any country in the world.

Thus, the Dutch seem to have created a good model for that world. They have not gone to war on drugs and have been tolerant of those who have used them. They took away from youth the weapon of marijuana as a symbol of defiance. Most important, whether they planned to or not, they succeeded in making pot a boring subject to most of the youth of the country.

The Dutch seem to have dealt largely with the marijuana issue but have still not solved all of their difficulties with drugs. Yet, their spirit of moderation and experimentation is unmatched. They have tried a variety of approaches to supplying legal drugs to addicts through doctors and have kept adjusting their methods. A few years ago, the city government of Amsterdam came up with a proposal to experiment with medicalized heroin for addicts. The national government resisted and stopped it for the time being. When I was in Amsterdam in September 1986, however, Mayor Ed van Thijn sought me out at a reception he was holding at the Vincent van Gogh Museum to tell me that his government was going to propose the experiment again.

The city government is already showing its support for innovation in a variety of ways. I saw a small piece of that experimentation when I visited the Amsterdam chapter of the national addict union, or 'junkie Bond." The very existence of the union was breathtaking proof of how refreshingly different many Dutch leaders were in thinking about the fundamental nature of the drug problem. The union and another organization devoted to the interests of addicts, known by the initials MDHG, are greatly assisted by an annual contribution of approximately $80,000 from the city government. These related organizations, working side-by-side, provide a form of day hostel for using addicts, along with information, advice, and friendly support of all kinds. On the day of my visit in 1986, members told me of a small book they were writing, which contained the reminiscences of addicts who had kicked the habit. The tentative title: "Each In His Own Way."

While at their headquarters in a decent looking house not far from my hotel in downtown Amsterdam, I was seated in a room with three members of the group: Thijs van den Boomen, a nonuser and the organization's administrative director, and Willem Jonkers and Mike Wittenkampf, both drug addicts. As we talked about all of the services offered by the organization, I was surprised to see a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. looking out over high stacks of big cardboard boxes. I was told that the organization was started by a Dutch man who was a disciple of King's because of the minister's great respect for human rights.

As for the boxes, they happened to contain "shooters," Mike told me. Many thousands of them. "Hypodermic needles?" I asked. Mike replied, "Yes, we call them 'shooters.'" All three then proceeded to explain that they conducted a major educational campaign to prevent disease among injecting addicts and prostitutes in the city. In addition, they provided free needles which could be obtained by turning in used ones. For the prostitutes, they also provided free condoms.


Arnold S. Trebach, The Great Drug War, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987, pp. 103 and 375.


Our valuable member Arnold Trebach has been with us since Monday, 20 December 2010.

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