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Conclusions and policy intentions PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Friday, 07 May 2010 00:00

Drugs policy in the Netherlands: Conclusions and policy intentions

Conclusions and policy intentions

Health interests have always been at the forefront of Dutch policy on drugs over the last twenty years and in terms of these health objectives the policy can be considered to have been successful. The decriminalisation of the possession of quantities of soft drugs for personal use and the existence of sales points tolerated under certain circumstances by the authorities have not resulted in a worryingly high level of consumption among young people. Moreover, users of soft drugs do not as a rule tend to experiment with hard drugs, such as heroin or cocaine; this is indeed the intention of the policy of keeping the markets separate. There is little use of heroin and cocaine among minors in the Netherlands, and the trend is towards even less. This development compares favourably with those in most other countries in Europe. This difference probably also explains the different tone of the public debate in the Netherlands and elsewhere. In the Netherlands the drugs problem is no longer seen primarily as an acute health threat but rather as a source of nuisance. A more pragmatic and administrative approach is appropriate given the way in which the Netherlands today defines and experiences the problem.

The policy on drug addicts, which concentrates heavily on prevention and care, has helped achieve a situation where the health of addicts resident in the Netherlands also compares favourably with that in other countries. There is less widespread HIV infection among addicts and infection levels are falling. The mortality rate among addicts is low and is not increasing, as it is in many European countries.

The government regards the results achieved to date as grounds for continuing the principal elements of the pragmatic policy pursued up to now, which has been geared to controlling the damage done to health.

However, a number of negative implications have come to light which mean that certain aspects of policy must be amended. The criminal and general nuisance caused by both Dutch and foreign drug users has crossed a critical limit in many municipalities and must therefore be reduced. Such side effects also undermine support from society at large for a policy which is aimed at the social integration of users. In the years ahead Dutch drugs policy will continue to be aimed at combating the negative health effects of drug use but it will also be concerned to reduce the nuisance caused to the general public.

Amendments are also needed on account of the attraction which the Dutch drugs market exerts on users from neighbouring countries and the criticism of what is seen as the tolerant Dutch attitude that this has helped to engender abroad. Finally, the increasing involvement of criminal organisations in the supply and sale of drugs at home and abroad is a cause of the utmost concern. The growing economic power of organised crime is a major problem calling for urgent action in the Netherlands, as elsewhere.

Aside from these complications, policy must always take into account the constantly changing nature of the drugs problem. Heroin has acquired a "loser's" image among young people, while the use of synthetic drugs, such as ecstasy, is rapidly increasing. Depending partly on the context in which they are used, the latter can cause considerable harm to users' health. They are therefore classified as hard drugs, though they require an approach all of their own.

Another trend with major implications for policy is the intensive use of both soft and hard drugs within socially marginalised sections of the population. In the case of this target group treatment of addiction can only be effective if it forms part of a more comprehensive approach which also seeks to improve the training and employment prospects. The government's policy on the big cities, which is being pursued in close cooperation with the municipalities concerned and one of the aims of which is to integrate young people who are at risk of going astray, provides a good basis for such an approach.

The legalisation debate

There have for some time been those in the Netherlands who believe that the production and sale of drugs should not be criminal offences at all. They claim that this would drastically bring down the prices of drugs, as a result of which criminal organisations would lose their principal source of income. At the same time, addicts would not need to commit any more property offences to obtain money to buy illegal drugs.

The government believes that permitting the sale of hard drugs would bring with it a danger that more young people who are socially vulnerable would start to use such drugs, with all the risks to their health that this would entail. The government considers that these risks alone are sufficient reason to reject this option. The gratifyingly small and still falling number of addicts under the age of 21 represents an achievement which should not be jeopardised. The small number of minor addicts in Dutch towns and cities is after all one of the great successes of the Dutch drugs policy.

The situation is somewhat different as regards soft drugs. Dutch experience with coffee shops has shown that the greater availability of such drugs does not give in itself lead to increased use. The coffee shops serve a useful social function for young people, in that they act as a buffer against the criminal underworld associated with hard drugs. The question which arises is whether the supply of soft drugs to the coffee shops should not be legalised.

However, we do not consider that straightforward liberalisation, that is to say making the trade in soft drugs fully commercial, would be desirable. Use of such drugs should be discouraged, through public information campaigns, etc. What might be possible would be to introduce a state monopoly or a licensing system, which would certainly have advantages. It would be possible to reduce the role of criminal organisations in coffee shops. The international obligations which the Netherlands has taken upon itself stand in the way of such an approach, however. A licensing system would impose a considerable burden in the way of implementation and monitoring. Any decriminalisation of the cultivation of and/or trade in soft drugs would also probably attract more "drug tourists" from abroad, as a result of which the nuisance they cause would increase. It should also be remembered that if soft drugs were to be legalised only in the Netherlands criminal organisations involved in the transport of drugs through the Netherlands to other countries would continue to exist and would have to be tackled just as before.

The government considers that the disadvantages outweigh the practical advantages. Any problems concerning the coffee shops can better be solved within the framework of the Opium conventions as they stand by amending the procedural policies of the Public Prosecutions Department and introducing administrative regulation.

The government will do all it can to participate in as effective a manner possible in European and international discussions on drugs policy. A major priority must be to provide factual information on the background to and results of Dutch policy. The government believes, however, that it has less scope for influencing the European debate than is sometimes thought. Normative considerations, which are determined by culture and ideology, inevitably play a large role in that debate.

The Dutch contribution to the European and international debate - a debate which the government believes is desirable - on the advantages and disadvantages of the legalisation of soft drugs should be made cautiously and with the appropriate awareness of the relativity of Dutch views on the subject. The approach to be adopted should include the establishment of relations with strategic partners abroad.

Representatives of Dutch industry who are concerned about the economic consequences of the government's drugs policy can contribute to this debate.

Integrated approach

The government has decided that in tackling the drugs problem it should maintain the course it embarked upon in the 1970s, albeit with a few adjustments. The response to the problem of addicts will, as in the past, be provided within a framework of prevention, care, treatment and punishment for criminal behaviour. That framework will, however, be modified to give greater emphasis to certain aspects.

Primary prevention will be geared more to the recreational use of new drugs such as ecstasy and to the more problematic use of drugs by socially vulnerable sections of the population. A national support system will be established to assist with the provision of information, the promotion of expertise and policy development.

The care provided will be better coordinated. For instance, the various forms of care such as methadone substitution programmes must tie up to a greater extent with projects relating to training, employment and housing. To a greater extent than in the past, addicts will be offered an integrated range of care, tailor-made to meet their needs, to which obligations as well as rights will be attached. More attention will also be paid to case management in this connection.

The need for a more flexible and more integrated range of prevention and care options also means that a clear policy and financing strategy is required. In view of this the government has decided that research should be conducted to establish whether the current regional approach to out-patient care for addicts based around 23 municipal centres should continue after the Temporary Act for the Promotion of Social Renewal expires on 1 January 1997. In view of the need to monitor the problem of addiction we will also establish statutory provisions governing participation in the national system for the provision of information.

Tackling nuisance

In order to tackle the problems of nuisance and crime which have arisen, an integrated approach is required, to which all parties - central government, municipal authorities, the Public Prosecutions Department, the police, the probation service, the prison service and those responsible for caring for and treating addicts - contribute in a coordinated fashion. As regards the use of hard drugs, the efforts of the local authorities, the police, the Public Prosecutions Department and care providers should be geared to improving the behaviour of addicts. The fact that the use of drugs is not in itself a criminal offence does not mean that addicts are free to commit property offences, act aggressively or engage in behaviour which causes a nuisance. Addicts who commit such offences will be brought to book.

Intensive cooperation by all the bodies involved is required if these side-effects of drug use are to be kept within acceptable bounds. We believe that attention must be devoted to making the behaviour of addicts more socially acceptable as part of the care they receive, though this must be done in a way which does not frighten them away from seeking assistance. A chain approach is essential in this.

First of all, it is important that the preventive approach be strengthened. The programmes of action which have been announced for the big cities, in which the social problems affecting young people are to be tackled in an integrated manner, provide the necessary foundations. By improving the social prospects of socially vulnerable young people it will be possible to tackle the problems at the roots. There should be a low threshold to care for addicts, and a good range of care options should be available. It is essential for social prospects, in the form of training and employment, for example, to be created for people using the care services for addicts too. At the same time, corrective action will have to be taken against addicts who continue to subside into criminal and anti-social behaviour. Addiction agencies too should implement these policy principles. Finally, to enable this chain approach to work, there will be sufficient cell space to be able to punish persistent offenders, including those who infringe municipal nuisance bye-laws.

The prevention and control of nuisance caused by drugs is emphatically one of the safety aspects covered by the big cities policy. The government has made additional funds available for this policy and other purposes for the next four years (a total of NLG 375 million for the living and working environment and public safety together). At the same time it was agreed that the four biggest cities (The Hague, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Utrecht) would take the lead in establishing tighter central coordination at regional level, in order to ensure a consistent and integrated approach. Care providers, the police, the judicial authorities and the probation service are all directly involved. The budget for the renewal of care aimed at reducing nuisance resulting from drug use was NLG 37 million for 1995 and from 1996 will be increased by NLG 12.5 million (to NLG 49.5 million per year therefore).

An Inter-administrative Task Force on Public Safety and the Care of Addicts is to be set up to ensure that the policy intentions of the government and of the big cities as regards safety and nuisance from drug addicts are implemented appropriately. The responsibilities of this Task Force, which will comprise mandated coordinators from central government and the municipalities, will be to monitor the speedy implementation of the policy intentions on nuisance caused by drug use contained in the present policy document and to make recommendations to the municipal authorities and government ministers concerned if any danger of delay arises in either quarter.

In imitation of the successful police operation (code-named Victor) which was conducted in Rotterdam early in 1995, police and prison capacity will be reserved on a permanent basis for the specific investigation of Dutch and foreign drug addicts who cause nuisance. Where necessary, foreign addicts (including EU subjects) arrested on account of having committed offences will be deported immediately. Cooperation will be stepped up with the police and judicial authorities in neighbouring countries. Within the framework of the EU and elsewhere efforts will be made to ensure that care for addicts in relevant countries is improved so that the Dutch courts are better able to place foreign addicts in addiction clinics etc. in their country of origin.

The Minister of the Interior will put before Parliament a bill to give municipalities greater powers to seal dwellings from which drugs are being trafficked. In imitation of the Amsterdam initiative, offices at which nuisance caused by drugs can be reported, which will also have a role in mediation and information gathering, are to be set up around the country.

To date, residential care has been almost entirely devoted to attempts to ensure that patients come off drugs completely and permanently. In the case of most addicts, this objective is too ambitious, certainly in the short term. Residential care will more often have to accept improving the extent of a patient's social conformity as a subsidiary, if not principal, objective. Where necessary and possible such treatment will be carried out at the order of the criminal courts.

In 1996 a forensic addiction clinic is to be opened. It is intended for addicts who have committed serious offences and require intensive care. The clinic will ultimately have 70 places.

As part of the policy to reduce nuisance, which is already under way, more scope will also be provided for what are known as "compulsion and dissuasion" projects, the aim of which is to use the threat of detention as an incentive to addicts who have committed relatively seriously offences to undergo residential or out-patient treatment. Intensive supervision by the probation services, with checks to ensure that conditions are being met, link up with these projects. The Minister of Justice will request the Public Prosecutions Department to make 500 of the additional cells which will be ready in 1996 available for this purpose.

As part of the policy on the big cities, one or more trials will be conducted involving the detention of addicts who are causing a serious nuisance by committing series of minor offences (including property offences) and/or by engaging in aggressive behaviour, under conditions in which attempts can be made to reintegrate them into society. One of the jobs of the Inter- administrative Task Force on Public Safety and the Care of Addicts referred to above will be to bring this about. Placement in this institution for the care of addicts will for the time being be achieved by making such placement a condition for the suspension of a custodial sentence. In order to create an appropriate legal basis for the new approach, the Minister of Justice will put before Parliament a bill to establish a criminal law measure for the care of addicts, partly by analogy with that under which beggars and tramps could be placed in a state labour institution, which has now fallen into disuse.

The courts will be able to order a person to be placed in care compulsorily for a minimum of three months and a maximum of one or two years. The municipalities will be responsible for providing training and work experience. The municipal authorities in the four big cities have promised their full cooperation in the realisation of the plans. Those in Rotterdam and Amsterdam have also already said they are willing to help with financing. A start will be made with a trial in the municipality of Rotterdam involving approximately 100 places. The Task Force will draw up proposals for expanding the scheme elsewhere to include at least 300 places, at least 100 of which will be made available to Amsterdam.

Experiment with the provision of heroin

The government was greatly impressed by the report from the Health Council on the provision of heroin and other opiates on medical grounds. We will consult with those municipal authorities which are interested on the implementation of one or more small- scale trials to be conducted on a strictly medical basis. The objective of providing heroin in this way is to improve the health and social condition of addicts. Any positive effects on the problems of crime and public nuisance should be regarded as highly desirable side effects; they will also be taken into consideration in the evaluation. A start will be made with a pilot study involving no more than fifty addicts.

Combating drug trafficking through the use of the criminal law

Trafficking in hard drugs will continue to be tackled using the full weight of the criminal law, and cooperation with other countries will be stepped up. One of the responsibilities of the national investigation team will be to provide cooperation with foreign investigations. The aim of this approach is to keep the financial and social barriers to the use of hard drugs as high as possible and to combat the involvement of the Netherlands and its citizens in international trafficking in such drugs. The sale of hard drugs to schoolchildren will be severely punished. Greater priority will be given to investigating leading figures behind local hard drug trafficking.

Tackling organised crime through the criminal law in general requires considerable sacrifices from the Netherlands government and society. Given the seriousness of the present situation, however, the government considers it inevitable that these sacrifices must be made. The Minister of Justice and the Minister of the Interior will submit an updated plan of approach for tackling organised crime to the Lower House as quickly as possible after the parliamentary enquiry into organised crime has been completed.

Coffee shops

Under guidelines issued by the Public Prosecutions Department, the investigation of the sale of soft drugs in certain catering establishments not licensed to sell alcohol which meet a number of strict conditions is afforded no priority. Bona fide coffee shops have demonstrated that they help to shelter users of soft drugs from the world of hard drugs. This policy of tolerating such establishments irrespective of the criminal law will therefore be continued. The practice which exists de facto already, namely that proprietors who stick to the conditions set need not fear prosecution for the possession of several hundred grammes of cannabis for sale in their coffee shop, will be formalised by inclusion in the Public Prosecutions Department guidelines.

The sale of hard drugs within the shops is diametrically opposed to the central objective of the coffee shop policy. The full force of the criminal and administrative law will therefore always be brought to bear where this occurs.

We have reached the stage when coffee shops need a better administrative basis. In view of the responsibility of local authorities for public order and safety, they should ensure that coffee shops are situated and run in such a way that they cause as little nuisance as possible. The restriction of the sale of soft drugs to a particular kind of establishment, namely catering establishments in which no alcohol is served, means that it is possible for public order policy to be enforced at local level. Other local regulation is also desirable, in order to allow establishments to be assessed in advance more strictly, as regards both their design and the proprietor and manager. People with criminal records will not be allowed to own/run a coffee shop.

Such modified regulations and the additional efforts which will be required to ensure that they are observed will help regulate coffee shops as an institution. Enforcement will necessitate practical agreements between local authorities, the police and the Public Prosecutions Department in the tripartite consultations. Most larger municipalities have already decided drastically to reduce the number of coffee shops, in many cases to less than half the present number. The government supports this. No coffee shops at all will now be allowed near schools. In principle, those involved in the tripartite consultations in a particular municipality may decide to adopt the zero option if there is no real demand locally for such an establishment.

As part of the general review of the Licensing and Catering Act, consideration will be given to how municipalities can be granted greater powers to refuse and withdraw the relevant licences.

The Task Force on Public Safety and the Care of Addicts referred to above will be asked to set up a panel comprising experts on the administrative and judicial aspects of drugs policy, including the regulation of coffee shops, to assist local authorities, the police, the Public Prosecutions Department and schools.

The amount of soft drugs whose sale in coffee shops will be tolerated is to be limited to 5 grammes per customer. Coffee shop proprietors who engage in the sale of quantities of soft drugs for personal use which are obviously for export will be prosecuted wherever possible as accessories to the offence of international trafficking. Regular, targeted investigations will be carried out into foreigners who export quantities of soft drugs to their own countries which could be used for trading purposes in order to frighten off others. Where necessary, the authorities in other countries will be asked to assist with such operations. These adjustments to the guidelines will put a brake on the export to neighbouring countries of quantities of soft drugs for personal use.

The emergence of cannabis cultivated in the Netherlands requires a clear policy to be established. The Minister of Justice plans to put before Parliament a bill increasing the statutory maximum penalty which may be imposed for the cultivation of cannabis from two to four years imprisonment. In investigating and bringing prosecutions in respect of the cultivation of cannabis in the Netherlands priority will be given to large-scale, professional operations. This will help to prevent Dutch cannabis becoming an export product. The domestic cultivation in the Netherlands by people who have reached the age of majority of small amounts of cannabis, which meets the conditions laid down in local tripartite consultations, will be accorded no priority in respect of investigation and prosecution.

We consider the integrated approach described above, which includes both administrative measures and criminal law sanctions, to be a significant improvement in the way we deal with coffee shops. It may also help weaken the influence of criminal organisations over coffee shops. The latter consideration will be a crucial point in the assessment of the policy on coffee shops in the years ahead.

Research and statistics

The EU has set up a number of initiatives aimed at reaching a better understanding of the extent of and changes in drugs use in Europe, and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has been set up in Lisbon.

The various UN agencies and the Council of Europe (Pompidou Group) also conduct regular studies on the subject. The Netherlands government attaches great value to the production of improved and comparable statistics and research data on drug use. Such information would enable the effects of current policy to be determined more accurately, which would mean that discussions on policy could be more substantive and less dominated by preconceptions and opinions. It is expected that this will gradually help lead to a better understanding of the principles and effects of the Netherlands' drugs policy. The government will take steps to expand the statistical and scientific programme relating to drug use, partly within the framework of EU and UN initiatives.

As part of the renewal of care, which is to include aspects of the nuisance problem, more attention will be paid to monitoring and evaluation; regular user studies will be conducted, for example.

In cooperation with the Dutch Association of Care Organisations for Addicts (NeVIV) a start has been made on quality development. The Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport will also promote studies to evaluate preventive measures. The Organisation for Future Scenarios in Health Care (Stichting Toekomstscenario's Gezondheidszorg) has been commissioned to draw up future scenarios for the addiction problem as well*. Here too attention will be devoted to the European context of the problem.

Evaluation of the policy on coffee shops will also look at whether they do indeed keep the markets for soft and hard drugs separate, and at the effects of municipal policy on limiting nuisance.

In conclusion

We are under no illusions that this policy document sets out a blueprint for drugs policy in the Netherlands for many years to come. Drug use is constantly changing. A pragmatic policy, that is to say one geared to practical results, must therefore be flexible. We believe that this policy document, which is based on an objective analysis of the current situation, sets out a course for drugs policy which is constructive and realistic and makes some balanced concessions to criticisms at home and abroad. The policy which has been outlined is aimed at continuing the specifically Dutch, humane policy of encouraging the social integration of drug users while setting limits to the anti-social excesses associated with the drugs problem. There may still be some inconsistencies in some aspects of the policy. It should be borne in mind that drugs policy is an exercise not in logic but in controlling a persistent and multi-facetted problem which is subject to the influence of social and cultural developments at home and abroad which may change rapidly.

Both drug use and drugs policy are in a state of considerable flux internationally as well as domestically. The policy set out in this document builds upon the foundations laid in years gone by while providing the opportunity for a rapid response to new national and international developments. We believe that the policy document represents a responsible step forward in drugs policy.


  • Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport
    B. Borst-Ellers
  • Minister of Justice
    W. Sorgdrager
  • State Secretary for the Interior
    J. Kohnstamm
Last Updated on Tuesday, 04 January 2011 22:54

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