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A few months ago, Foreign Affairs,
the famed New York bimonthly, carried an article titled
"Holland's half-baked drug experiment". It
was severely critical of my country's official drug
policy. Citing police officers interviewed for this
article, it call Holland "the drug capital of Europe"
and notes that "Holland is to synthetic drugs what
Colombia is to cocaine".
I am not going to fiercely defend Holland's
drug policy. Many if not most of the criticisms leveled
against it are at least partly justified and should
be taken seriously. Nonetheless this much-discussed
Dutch drug policy does not only meet repudiation abroad,
but also appreciation; for example, in some of the states
of federal Germany. And to the best of my knowledge
there is no convincing evidence that hard line countries
like the United States and France are markedly more
successful in their endeavours to clean their societies
The Dutch embarked on their comparatively
liberal drug policy in the mid-1970s. The leading idea
then was to separate the worlds of soi-disant soft drugs
and of so-called hard drugs. Cannabis products were
considered not harmless, but much less damaging than
heroine, cocaine, and their likes and even less damaging
than alcohol and tobacco. So efforts were made to provide
soft drug users with a shopping outlet, to keep them
from falling prey to drug peddling criminals and to
corral them off from hard drug users---in other words
to create a congenial environment for the cannabis consumers
away from the dirty world of hard drug outdoors.
That is how a network of licensed "coffeeshops"
developed (what a euphemistic, not to say hypocritical
name, by the way!). In these shops hashish and marihuana
could be sold to consumers under certain restrictions:
no more than 30 grams (later reduced to 5 grams), no
sale to people younger than 18 years of age, no advertising,
and a few more. Since 1995, the number of coffeeshops
has been substantially reduced. Has this policy met
its goals? It does not look like it has. Launched with
noble intentions, it has largely failed. Why?
A number of frustrating developments
have occurred. A very important one is the emergence
of in-house production of cannabis (Nederweit). There
has been an explosive growth of home production, according
to some estimates up to a hundred tons a year (part
of which is exported to neighbouring countries). This
has thwarted the policy of moderating cannabis consumption
through placing quantitative restrictions on the sales
This is all the more worrying since
this "new style" cannabis is much more potent,
hence harmful (it has a much higher THC content) than
the old-time products. The demarcation line between
soft and hard drugs gets blurred.
Another phenomenon that has raised its
ugly head is the switch by many consumers, particularly
young people, to various kinds of new drugs, most notably
"ecstacy" and amphetamines ("speed").
Ecstacy and speed are ingredients of a new youth culture.
They have been firmly linked to house music parties
and similar happenings. These new products are synthetic,
often fabricated in small laboratories which are hard
to track by law enforcement officers. An additional
problem is that drugs like ecstacy can readily be re-designed
in a laboratory in order to elude the definitions of
illicit products inserted in anti-narcotics legislation.
In the most recent past, eco-drugs have come into fashion
such as the derivates of certain mushrooms.
I should not leave unmentioned that
the drugs policy adopted by the Dutch in the 1970s has
failed to meet its goals for yet another reason. In
too many instances coffeeshops have not been kept in
check. As a result the restrictions imposed on their
operation have not been effectively enforced. Moreover,
the battle against the sale of hard drugs has not been
sufficiently determined and consistent. These law enforcement
failures have contributed to frustrating the realization
of the basic idea of separating in actual practice the
world of soft drugs from that of hard drugs.
All this fortifies my opinion that laws
and their enforcement are rather blunt weapons in the
combat against narcotics. Let it be reiterated therefore
that reducing the demand is far more promising than
fighting the supply. But how can we achieve substantial
demand reduction? Information and education are indispensable
tools. Mission impossible? Look at the rapid decline
in parts of the industrial world of tobacco consumption.
Tobacco has been embedded in our culture for many centuries.
Who would have dared predict some decades ago this revolutionary
turnabout on tobacco?
It occurs to me that the addiction to
consciousness-altering substances has a lot to do with
the spiritual vacuum into which much of the western
world has plunged. Life is all too often perceived as
senseless; many people have lost a sense of direction,
do feel disoriented, are desperately groping for guidance
and are hankering for an anchorage. One cannot but hope
and pray for Europe to land anew on a solid shore in
the forthcoming century. Drifting without anchor and
compass, to nihilism and amorality, our delapidated
civilization has left many young people nearly drowning.
Compounding the problem is the advance
of a new technology of self-determination. Anyone is
entitled, it preaches, to design his or her life as
he or she wishes, even if the chosen lifestyle is destructive
of one's health. This ideology virtually deprives people
of their sense of responsibility towards themselves,
their next of kin, and society at large. It also implies
that it is not our calling to try and protect our brothers
and sisters. Again, the notion of responsibility is
thus erased, or at least eroded.
Instead, we must bear witness to the
value of responsibility as opposed to unfettered individualism
and merciless indifference on the part of bystanders.
Europe's moral revival will be largely a matter of resuscitating
the awareness of responsibility.
Andreas van Agt, a former
prime minister of The Netherlands, delivered this paper
at the Fifth Meeting of the Rainbow International Association
Against Drugs, at San Patrignano, Italy, in October
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