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Articles - International & national drug policy
Written by Govert Van de Wijngaart   
Saturday, 23 December 1989 00:00

Drug abuse research and policy

A Dutch-American Debate

A report by Govert F. van de Wijngaart

It may be, however, that the beginnings of a change in North America are appearing in the most unlikely portion of the newspapers - the comics. Recent themes in American comic strips, such as Doonesbury, Bloom County, Kudzu, and Tank Mac-Namara, illustrate that it is becoming possible to laugh publicly at the War on Drugs in North America. At this stage, humour may be the only avenue of mass communication open to those who hope to discredit the War on Drugs propaganda" (Alexander, 1988, p.205).

What is remarkable about the present situation in the USA is that with the intensification of the War on Drugs, a growing number of significant public figures have come out with ambivalent or downright negative statements about the current policy. David Boas, Vice President for public policy at the Washington D.C. based CATO Institute, wrote an article entitled "Let's Quit the Drug War" in the New York Times (March 17th, 1988). In it he denounced the War on Drugs as "unwinnable" and destructive to other values such as civil liberties, and advocated a "withdrawal" from the war. Other critics of the War on Drugs include William F. Buckley, Jr. and the economist Milton Friedman. In Great Britain, even the politically staid journal"The Economist" (April 2nd, 1988) came up with the editorial statement to bring drug users within the law and give them the right to buy limited doses. Taxes should be high enough to help deter consumption, but low enough to put illicit dealers out of business. Next, the US national newspaper "USA Today" devoted its whole editorial page to statements about "The Debate", illustrating the extreme polarisation of the discussion (April 25th, 1988).

What does this suggest about the current state of the War on Drugs? It is tempting to make a parallel with the Vietnam war, in which it was noteworthy that the more the failure of the operation became apparent, the stronger were the calls to intensify the war - and to abandon it altogether. It would be biased to make any prediction on the basis of this analogy, but Wisotsky described the current situation at least as the beginning of a "paradigm shift".

"In 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions' Thomas S. Kuhn argued that 'the process by which a new candidate for paradigm replaces its predecessors' occurs 'only after persistent failure to solve a noteworthy puzzle has given rise to crisis'. There is little doubt that the perception that the war on drugs is a failure has spread significantly. It also appears that people are beginning to understand that a war on drugs necessarily breeds violence and corruption. At some point, we may well reach Kuhn's stage of persistent failure and crisis. If so, the war on drugs will be dislodged as the only conceivable paradigm for the control of drugs in the US. In searching for a new model of regulation, the Dutch system has much to teach us and deserves serious study immediately" (Wisotsky, 1988, p. 23).

Wisotsky is not the only US drug expert who sees in the "Dutch system" the elements of a viable alternative to the policy of deterrence. Nadelmann (1988) pointed to the decline in marijuana use in the Netherlands in spite of - or perhaps because of - the relaxation during the 1970's in law enforcement. Trebach stated:

"(Holland) is the only country where the government itself calmly supports peaceful approaches to drug problems and openly opposes the very idea of war on drugs. The Dutch seem to have dealt largely with the marijuana issue but have still not solved all of their diffculties with drugs. Yet, their spirit of moderation and experimentation is unmatched" (Trebach, 1987, p. 376).

After a long period of 'corridor chat', and several workshops on drug policy oriented research organised by the Erasmus University's Addiction Research Institute (Rotterdam), researchers from the Netherlands presented themselves and their research data in 1986, at the 15th (ICAA) International Institute on the Prevention and Treatment of Drug Dependence (Kaplan and Kooyman, 1987). For the first time it was possible for the non-Dutch experts to examine and discuss Dutch research in-depth on a large scale. This was really necessary, because Dutch drug policy has been for some time the object of widespread, and mostly critical, attention. Unfortunately, the criticisms had more often been based on prejudice than on fact, partly because hardly any relevant research data were available in leading international journals yet. A year later, in 1987, the first Dutch-American debate took place at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and focused on 'the effectiveness of drug abuse treatment'.

Leading researchers of both countries learned from each other's work and the first steps were made to initiate joint research projects. Moreover, one was able to exchange information about the different settings in which the research took place as well as cultural differences underlying the drug policies of both countries.

On the occasion of the William-and-Mary Year, 1988, a colourful group of researchers and policy-makers met in London at the Royal Society of Medicine for an Anglo-Dutch Debate. It was very interesting to experience how the drug policies of both countries and their underlying values were presented and discussed in the scientific forum (Engelsman, 1989;,Grifflth Edwards,1989). This year, 1989, the Netherlands hosted the second Dutch-American debate, which took place in the Ministry of Justice, being the first debate that had been set up by a professional organisation (Metropolink, Amsterdam). In a tight schedule the first results of Dutch-American co-operation, among other topics, were discussed: chronic benzodiazepine use among women, the situation in prisons and last-but not least - the prevention and containment of AIDS. The preliminary results of programmes aimed at drug users to prevent the spread of HIV infection gained a lot of attention (Van Brussel and Buning, 1988), probably the main reason for the growing interest in the Dutch Model.

All these debates have led to an increase in knowledge and a growing understanding of the specific problems the different countries are facing. The mere revelation of facts and figures is best proof against the drug war propaganda. We agree with Alexander (1988) that the alternative to the current drug propaganda is undistorted information: the benefits of drugs as well as their costs and dangers; the fact that the majority of people use drugs moderately and only a minority use them addictively; the conditions under which drug use is relatively safe as well as the conditions under which it is risky.

Along with the debates came the foundation and development of several important international fora, from which undistorted information could be spread in a consistent way, to wit the European Movement for the Normalisation of Drug Policy, the Drug Policy Foundation and, most recently, the International Antiprohibitionist League (Arnao, 1988).

Good drug policy is policy based on scientific data, facts and figures - not myths, ideology and propaganda. Good drugs policy is policy based on a solid socio-economic basis in society. Good socio-economic policy is not a panacea for drug problems, however, it does contribute to their containment. Finally, The International Journal On Drug Policy. Vol I Issue 3 good drug policy takes into account the prevailing historical, cultural and individual differences.

In the search for new perspectives, is important to recognize that the criminal status of drug use is a major factor in causing problems for the drug users and the community in general.

However, decriminalisation or the transition from the present situation to more measured response to drugs should be gentle, because time is required for individuals and society to 'domesticate' new drugs, including one's own decision to abstain or to say 'no to drugs'.


Alexander, B.K. (1988). Alternatives to war on drugs. The cost of prohibition on drugs pp. 200-209. Rome: C.O.R.A.

Arnao, G. (1989). International League Against Prohibition. International Journal on Drug Policy, 1, 1, pp.20-21.

Brussel, G. Van and Buning E. (1988) Public Health Management of AIDS and Drugs in Amsterdam. In; L.S. Harris (Ed.) Problems of Drug Dependence. (NIDA Research Monograph 90)

Edwards, G. (1989) What Drives British Dr Policies. British Journal of Addiction, 84 2, pp,219-226.

Engelsman, E.L. (1989). Dutch Policy on tl Management of Drug-Related Problems. British Journal of Addiction, 84, 2, pp. 211 -218.

Kaplan, C.D. and Kooyman, M. (Eds.) (1987). Proceedings of the 15th Intern. Ins on the Prevention and Treatment of Dependence. Rotterdam: Erasmus University.

Nadelmann. E.A. (1988). U.S. Drug Policy Bad Export. Foreign Policy, 70, pp. 83-1C (Spring) .

Trebach, A.S. (1987). The Great Drug War New York: Macmillan.

Wisotsky, S. (1988). Recent Developments in the U.S. War on Drugs. Paper presented at the International Conference on Drug Policy, Tilburg, Netherlands (May 29).


Our valuable member Govert Van de Wijngaart has been with us since Monday, 20 December 2010.

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