Ecstasy Use and Policy Responses in the Netherlands

By Spruit, Inge P. | Journal of Drug Issues, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Ecstasy Use and Policy Responses in the Netherlands


Spruit, Inge P., Journal of Drug Issues


During the last 25 years, the Netherlands has attempted to achieve a balanced, two-track, public health and justice policy on drugs. This paper considers the implementation of that policy for ecstasy, a drug that has gained popularity throughout Europe during this decade. Prevention is the Dutch government's primary policy aim. Research, monitoring, and registration are important foundations for the public health aspects of Dutch policy. Important policy instruments include the development of regulations directed towards reductions in the environmental risks posed by house parties and efforts to educate users and non-users about the drug. The justice elements of Dutch ecstasy policy include the outlawing of compounds (since 1988), passing new criminal legislation, and enhancing national and international co-operative enforcement efforts. In 1996, the Public Prosecutor reviewed the criminal investigation and prosecution policy and ordained that all hard drugs (predominantly heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy) had to be criminally investigated and prosecuted along the same lines. Some public health and criminal justice elements of the national policy reinforce each other but others are conflicting. Policy efforts are directed towards the continuing process of maintaining a balance between these approaches and the control of conflicting interests.

INTRODUCTION

As has been typical of many new drugs, ecstasy first appeared in Amsterdam (in the late 1980s) after first being discovered by substance trendsetters in the United States. At that time, it had a "candlelight" image as a drug best taken at home with a few intimate friends that would make one feel peaceful and loving. It soon became an option for those who wanted to use a relatively harmless, "light," social drug. The placement of ecstasy on Schedule I (Schedule I is reserved for "hard drugs" like opiates and cocaine; only cannabis is placed on Schedule 11, the "soft drugs" list) in 1988 was based on evidence of large-scale production and trading; however, it was also thought to have been largely a political act, of symbolic importance for smoothing international governmental relations.

A rapid and steep increase in ecstasy use occurred when the substance became popular as a party or dance drug. It soon was indelibly associated with house or rave parties (the terms refer to acid house music), discotheques, and large-scale festival events, although ecstasy was also used outside the party and nightclub circuit. As had been observed in other countries (Garnella, 1997), its growing popularity in the Netherlands was at least partially determined by the popular image of what it was not. For example, it was not viewed as a drug for losers like heroin junkies, nor an addictive and ego-centering drug like cocaine, nor as an hallucinogen like LSD, nor unpleasantly "speedy" like amphetamine. Unlike these negative images, ecstasy was generally believed to be relatively harmless, a party drug that could be taken without endangering oneself or others (Nabben, 1998).

In the U.S. in the seventies, ecstasy was the popular street term for MDMA. MDMA is an amphetamine analogue of the MDA-type, a family of drugs with almost 200 members, all sharing a similar core molecular structure that can be modified to produce a large number of related drug types. In the eighties, the term ecstasy referred to substances of diverse composition (Siegel, 1986). Nowadays, products widely sold as ecstasy on the illicit drug markets may contain MDMA, some other amphetamine analogue, or combinations of analogues. This was one of the reasons given by the World Health Organization in 1997 for straying from the scientific definition of "the real thing" (ecstasy) exclusively for MDMA: "The term 'ecstasy' is now used so widely that it may be considered to be virtually generic for any member of the amphetamine analogues of the MDA type" (WHO, 1997: 6). It is usually taken in tablet form (one or more pills) but sometimes as a capsule or powder. …

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