The Netherlands: Let's Be Realistic

By Barnard, Herbert P. | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview

The Netherlands: Let's Be Realistic


Barnard, Herbert P., The World and I


Drug use is fact of life and needs to be discouraged in as practical a manner as possible.

"The Dutch policy on drugs is a disastrous mistake. The Netherlands regrets its liberal policy and is about to turn back the clock." "Drug use has increased by 250 percent in two years, armed robberies by 70 percent, shoot-outs by 40 percent, and car theirs by 60 percent." "In the Netherlands, 1,600 addicts receive daily injections of heroin on government orders." "In Amsterdam recently, a father who was addicted to cannabis massacred his whole family." "There's plenty of heroin for sale in every Dutch coffee shop."

Do you believe all this? I am quoting just a few statements by foreign politicians and other "experts" who disagree with the Netherlands' drug policy. There is evidently an audience willing to believe all this, which gives such critics a reason to continue spreading these stories. Aside from questioning the honesty of this approach, one should ask what purpose is served by repeating such nonsense. It is certainly not in the interest of drug users, their immediate neighbors, the government, or health-care and social service institutions.

The drug problem is too serious an issue to be used as a political football by ambitious politicians. Nor should it be the subject of speculations about reality, making the facts of the matter irrelevant. As a representative of the Netherlands government, I take this opportunity to present the facts.

To understand the Dutch drug policy, you need to know a little about the Netherlands and the Dutch people. After all, a country's drug policy has to fit in with the nation's characteristics and culture.

The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with around 15.5 million people in an area one-quarter the size of New York State. Commerce and transport have traditionally been important sectors of industry in our country. Rotterdam is the busiest port in the world, handling almost 5 million containers a year. In fact, the Netherlands is generally seen as the gateway to Europe.

The Dutch have a strong belief in individual freedom. Government is expected to avoid becoming involved in matters of morality and religion. At the same time, we feel a strong sense of responsibility for the well-being of the community. The Netherlands has a very extensive system of social security, while health care and education are accessible to everyone.

What is the Dutch drug policy? The main objective is to minimize the risks associated with drug use, both for users themselves and those around them. This objective was formulated in the mid-1970s and can be characterized as harm reduction avant la lettre.

Many elements of the harm-reduction approach are very similar to Dutch drug policy. Our policy does not moralize but is based on the idea that drug use is a fact of life and needs to be discouraged in as practical a manner as possible. This calls for a pragmatic and flexible approach that recognizes the risks for both drug users and those around them.

Our policy focuses on reducing demand as well as supply. A combination of these two instruments requires close cooperation with public health and law enforcement authorities on all policy levels, Furthermore, we invest a lot of money in cure and prevention. Since the 1970s and early '80s, respectively, low-threshold methadone provision and needle exchange programs have been important elements in our harm-reduction approach.

Our policy is based on two important principles. The first is the distinction between types of drugs, based on their harmfulness (hemp products on the one hand and drugs with unacceptable risks on the other). The second legal principle is a differentiation according to the nature of the punishable acts, such as the distinction between the possession of small quantities of drugs for one's own use and possession with intent to deal.

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