Reinarman, Craig & Peter Cohen (1999), Is Dutch drug policy the Devil? Amsterdam: Centre for Drug Research, Universiteit van Amsterdam.
© Copyright 1999 Craig Reinarman & Peter Cohen. All rights reserved.


Is Dutch drug policy the Devil?

Craig Reinarman and Peter Cohen

To grasp the furor over Dutch drug policy, one must understand that the U.S. has been slowly losing the international debate over drug policy to the Dutch.

In the U.S., alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition were cultural, political and ideological twins, established by the same people for the same reasons. In 1920, after a century-long anti-alcohol crusade, alcohol prohibition went into effect, followed immediately by drug prohibition. Both were based on the idea that alcohol and other drugs are inherently destructive, addicting, and evil. Both shared the utopian dream that the state could force society to be drug-free.

American prohibitionists pushed other nations to adopt this dream. But the Netherlands and nearly all other Western societies rejected the ban on alcohol, and in 1933 the U.S. itself repealed it. Widespread violations, crime, corruption, and general disrespect for law these produced convinced even supporters that alcohol prohibition made everything worse. The U.S. did persuade other nations to sign drug prohibition treaties. Though no more effective, antidrug laws were always far more coercive than anti-alcohol laws. Alcohol prohibition never criminalized personal use; drug prohibition always did.

In the 1970s, the widespread use of marijuana among middle-class youth raised questions about harsh drug laws. Prominent experts and officials in many nations insisted that drug problems could better be handled by health agencies than prisons. Police in many societies agreed. President Nixon's Marijuana Commission recommended decriminalization, as did President Carter a few years later.

Europe's drug laws have never been as harsh as U.S. laws, and the trend toward more tolerant, health-based policies began there. From the 1920s to the 1960s, England had a workable medical alternative to U.S.-style criminalization of addiction. Over the 1970s, the Dutch created, somewhat inadvertently, other drug policy alternatives. In 1976, after studies by two national commissions and much debate, the Dutch in effect decriminalized personal use of cannabis and prioritized public health over criminal law in dealing with drug problems. Several years later, "coffeeshops" began to sell small quantities of cannabis for personal use. At first these were merely tolerated, but eventually Parliament voted to formally regulate and control them. Dutch policy distinguishes between cannabis and hard drugs, just as many societies distinguish wine from hard liquor. It was designed to keep drug users within the bounds of conventional society -- reducing criminal sanctions in order to prevent ostracizing and marginalizing drug users, which tends to increase harm.

In recent years, most Western democracies have been moving away from U.S.-style punitive prohibition toward the regulatory and "harm reduction" approaches pioneered by the Netherlands. England, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and Austria have all taken steps in the Dutch direction. They have adopted needle exchanges to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS. They have made addiction treatment more available. Several have decriminalized personal possession of cannabis and occasionally other drugs. Most have reduced imprisonment of drug offenders to a fraction of U.S. levels. Switzerland's clinical experiment with heroin maintenance for addicts who had failed other treatments proved so successful the Swiss electorate voted to expand it. Now health officials in Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada are taking similar steps.

The U.S. adamantly opposes these public health-oriented drug policies in favor of more imprisonment. In the 1980s, the Reagan and Bush administrations campaigned to make drug policy "tougher." Congress passed new laws like the 1987 "Drug-Free America Act" giving life sentences to petty dealers. Successive Drug Czars declared "war on drugs," and funding for the Czar's agency escalated from $1 billion in 1981 to $17 billion in 1998. In the same period, Department of Justice figures show the number of drug offenders in prison rose 800%. American leaders of both parties still speak proudly of a "zero tolerance" approach to drug users.

Yet this punishment-based policy is not recognized as successful even by its advocates. Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey is only the latest prominent official to note the need for alternatives to the drug war. For years all major media have reported the pitfalls of punitive prohibition. Most Americans in opinion polls don't believe the war can work. They are right: After the most massive wave of imprisonment in U.S. history, the U.S. has higher rates of drug problems than most other societies. After bombarding its youth with more antidrug education than any generation in history, their drug use increased in five of the last six years.

Faced with such facts, some prohibitionists have become defensive, attacking Dutch drug policy because it challenges conventional drug war wisdom. In the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, Larry Collins asserted that Dutch policies had caused an "explosion" of heroin addiction and juvenile crime. He claimed that the Netherlands has become "the narcotics capitol of Europe," a virtual drug dealing state causing havoc in neighboring countries. Most of Collins' arguments are false or misleading. In this brief Comment, we can only point to a few of the flaws in his case. But they are important because his rhetorical tactics are precisely those traditionally used to shore up failed drug policies.

Slanted Sources: Throughout various governing coalitions since 1976, majorities in the Dutch Parliament have supported decriminalization and harm reduction. Yet Collins did not quote a single Dutch official saying anything positive about Dutch drug policy. In fact, he quoted out of context Dr. Ernst Buning of the Amsterdam Health Department, a supporter of the Dutch approach, to make him appear to be an opponent. Collins quotes two other Dutch sources, Drs. Koopman and Gunning, as if they were mere experts when both are well known conservative Christian fundamentalists, part of a small minority of extreme critics. Collins also quotes numerous unnamed critics from law enforcement. Yet Dutch police officials have won awards for and traveled the world speaking in support of Dutch drug policy, and other European cities send their police to the Netherlands for training.

Suspicious Statistics: With all the maneuvering for which drug importers are justly infamous, Collins quotes an anonymous Paris policeman claiming to know that "80% of all the heroin" in Paris "comes from Holland." But police everywhere, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, admit that they interdict only 10-20% of drug shipments, so reliable estimates of supply or its origins are impossible.

To further villify Dutch policy, Collins claims that Dutch-grown marijuana is "enormously potent," with THC content that "can rise as high as 35%." Collins cites studies by the Dutch Trimbos Institute when they appear to support him, but he fails to mention its Drug Monitoring Program's study (by Dr. Eric Fromberg) showing average THC content is 10%. Similarly, Collins quotes Dutch Ministry of Justice officials when they criticize Dutch drug policy, but he neglects to note that the Ministry's forensics lab found THC content of confiscated marijuana ranging from 1% to 23%, averaging 7% to 8.9%, from 1993 to 1997. Collins also did not cite surveys showing that most Dutch users prefer the milder strains of marijuana, and that those who do smoke stronger stuff use less of it. But his misleading figures are beside the point. High-potency marijuana was not developed in the Netherlands but in California, where growers perfected indoor production to avoid helicopter raids and stiff sentences.

Lack of Meaningful Comparisons: Prohibitionists fear decriminalization because they assume that availability will increase use. The most recent national survey of The Netherlands, where marijuana has long been legally available, found that 15.6% of the population had tried it. In the U.S., where nearly 700,000 arrests were made last year for marijuana offenses, the government's latest National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that 32.9% of the population had tried it.

Collins claims that "lenient" Dutch marijuana policy has caused heroin addiction in the Netherlands to skyrocket. He admits there is "no compelling physiological link between cannabis smoking and heroin use," but argues that marijuana causes heroin use anyway. He rejects lower official estimates in favor of unnamed "critics" who contend there are 35,000 addicts in the Netherlands. But even if we accept this estimate as accurate, Collins misrepresents its meaning by not expressing it as a comparative rate. With 15 million population, 35,000 addicts is 2.33 per thousand or about one in every 428 Dutch people. The U.S. government estimates there are 750,000 heroin addicts in its population of 265 million, which is a higher rate of 2.83 addicts per thousand or about one in 353 Americans. Moreover, the 1998 Annual Report of the European Union's Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that the Dutch rate of "problem drug use" was lower than in most other European countries.

Underlying Collins' argument is a simplistic deterrence theory. Early on he quotes an unnamed French policeman alleging that an "explosion" of "international trafficking groups" in the Netherlands was caused by "the light sentences" and "liberal attitude" of Dutch judges. But other nations with conservative judges who give out heavy sentences have their share of such trafficking groups.

Strained Logic: Prohibitionists sometimes load too much evil onto the slender shoulders of a single drug. For example, in attacking Dutch policy, Collins claims that marijuana makes youth both "chronically passive" and "violent." But it is pharmacologically difficult to have it both ways with the same molecules. He attributes "skyrocketing growth in juvenile crime" and "acts of violence" to Dutch drug policy on the grounds that marijuana use is most prevalent in big cities and so is violent crime. But correlation is not causation. There is more of every "sin" in every big city, and crime has also increased in cities with harsh drug laws.

For all his attempts to paint marijuana as addicting and as the cause of laziness, crime, and heroin use, Collins never asks, "In what proportion of marijuana users are such problems observed?" When all studies show that about 95% of marijuana users do not become addicted, lazy, criminal, heroin users, etc., logic would point the causal arrow away from the drug toward the characteristics and circumstances of the 5%.

Collins argues that the Netherlands' lenient drug policy has made it the "narcotics capitol of Europe," as if French and German users never found drugs before the Dutch changed their policy. This is not how humans or markets function. EU seizure data show supplies of illicit drugs almost everywhere, with the Dutch share stable for a decade.

Drug use among Dutch youth, Collins concludes, looks "remarkably similar to the youth drug scene elsewhere in Europe," as if this similarity was damning to Dutch drug policy. Collins is correct, Dutch drug use is not much different than that of most other European societies, it's just that the Dutch have significantly less HIV infection, overdose death, and imprisonment.

Globalization is making the world more multicultural. Multiple cultures mean multiple moralities and multiple lifestyles. In such a world, one-size-fits-all drug policies are doomed. The Dutch have a rich history of non-absolutist approaches to problems, but they are not proselytizing, claiming they see drug policy's promised land. Neither should those pushing more punitive approaches.

Craig Reinarman is Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Visiting Scholar at the Center for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam. His books include Crack In America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice and Cocaine Changes: The Experience of Using and Quitting. Peter Cohen is Associate Professor of Social Epidemiology and Director of the Center for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam. His books include Cocaine Use in Amsterdam in Non-Deviant Subcultures and Licit and Illicit Drug Use in Amsterdam.