While drugs such as cannabis are decriminalised in the Netherlands, when it comes to policy surrounding hard drugs, the Dutch seem to have taken a page out of the United States’ book. In this article, we examine why all drugs should be decriminalised.
Dutch social liberal party D66 (Democrats 66) thinks the war on drugs in the Netherlands is a ‘road leading nowhere,’ but according to the Christian democratic party, ChristenUnie (Christian Union), the battle has not even started yet. Looking abroad for a moment gives us some insight into the Netherlands’ options when it comes to tackling the war on drugs.
The US versus Canadian approach
In the United States, Nixon’s war on drugs which started in 1971 — and also found its way to the Netherlands — has cost billions and, so far, solved nothing.
However, recently in Canada, the Vancouver City Council unanimously expressed its opinion on a controversial hard drug policy: legalising all hard drugs in Vancouver. This means that possessing small amounts of drugs, including cocaine, meth and heroin, will no longer be a punishable offence in Vancouver.
To show just how seriously they’re taking it, a Vancouver city councillor joined activists outside a police station on July 14 to distribute free heroin, meth and cocaine. The councillor tweeted that these ‘safe’ samples of illicit drugs could save users from a poisoned street supply that has caused an overdose crisis on Canada’s west coast.
This raises the question: should the Netherlands be looking at doing the same? And is D66 right about the war on drugs not leading anywhere?
Again, the answer lies in how other countries are faring. Let’s take a look.
An increasingly violent problem abroad
Countries such as Mexico and Afghanistan have been struggling with the devastating effects of the drug trade for years. Also, in countries with many drug addicts, such as Iran and the United States, drugs and crime appear to go hand in hand.
So it’s not really a surprise that after such a long time of waging war against drugs, the idea is now to either decriminalise or legalise them.
And yes, if the measure seems desperate, it suits the moment. It’s not just drug overdoses that cities and municipalities have to contend with, but also the violence, mayhem and death that comes with the trafficking of drugs.
The Economist reports that the British Columbia (BC) health office, where Vancouver is located, declared an emergency over deaths from drug overdoses five years ago. Dealers were lacing street drugs with lethal levels of fentanyl, a cheap and potent opioid. British Columbia’s rate of illicit-drug deaths has more than doubled since then, with around 2,000 people dying from overdoses in the year to May — more than those killed by COVID-19.
Since Richard Nixon started the war on drugs in 1971 (which subsequently spread worldwide), billions have been spent, and nothing has really changed. Cartels still exist and are still trafficking drugs; the drug trade has even gotten more violent, cartels have even fortified their modus operandi and have also changed with the times — a lot of them are now heavily and well-armed that they can easily defeat the governments of some small countries.
They also use the latest and most innovative gadgets for drug trafficking, making them more effective and richer. So what exactly has the so-called war on drugs achieved?
Why drugs are illegal in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands, some drugs are socially accepted (such as alcohol, nicotine in tobacco, the caffeine in coffee, tea and cola). While cannabis may be illegal, it is decriminalised for personal use.
The truth is that a lot of drugs often have devastating effects on users. While the effects of caffeine are fairly harmless, alcohol leads to serious addiction and diseases such as Korsakoff’s syndrome. Additionally, tobacco smoking leads to a high risk of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
Cannabis can also be addictive and harm lung tissues and cause scarring and damage to small blood vessels.
Hallucinogens such as in some mushrooms and LSD change the way a person thinks and perceives things. They artificially induce psychosis. In general, hallucinogens are not addictive but can be dangerous because the user completely loses contact with reality and, in some cases, can endanger themselves and others.
Additionally, the effects of hallucinogens, such as LSD vary from person to person and depend on the amount taken. In short: given the extremely nasty effects of most drugs, it would be wise to limit their use in some way. This is why drug laws exist in almost all countries (Opium Act in the Netherlands) to make the trade and possession of certain drugs illegal.
The unintended consequences of drug prohibition
Alcohol is a dangerous hard drug, more dangerous than marijuana or LSD. No wonder the United States prohibited it in the 1920s after other hard drugs such as cocaine were banned. However, as history tells us, the consequences of prohibition turned out to be disastrous.
Extensive smuggling operations sprang up, and illegal distilleries were set up all over the country. In the end, most Americans didn’t even feel the ban on alcohol because the substance was everywhere.
Criminals like Al Capone became wealthy by stealing industrial alcohol and processing it into illegal whiskey. To eliminate the problem, the US government decided to make it compulsory to mix industrial alcohol with certain types of lethal poisons.
The result: thousands died. The ban on alcohol also led to an increase in organised crime. It wasn’t such a wonder that President Roosevelt decided to end Prohibition in the 1930s.
Since when has the prohibition of anything ever worked? When Peru drove out its coca growers, they moved to Colombia. When Colombia kicked them out, they went back to Peru? And when the Caribbean cocaine-trafficking route was sealed, new, bloodier ones sprang up in Mexico and Central America.
The big seizure of drugs has still not slowed down cartels and independent traffickers. The violence of drug trafficking and the war on drugs has created widows, orphans, refugees, etc. It’s one of the major reasons why the US southern border is crawling with refugees seeking a haven.
The US and the Netherlands’ cocaine consumption
A similar scenario to Prohibition can be seen in the United States today. The US has the highest cocaine consumption: an estimated 1,000 milligrams per year, five to ten doses per American. About three per cent of the population uses a lot of cocaine— much more than in the Netherlands or Europe.
So it’s basically safe to say that the war on drugs has been nothing but a failed project or experiment. It’s also safe to say that whatever Nixon thought he would eradicate, he only made stronger. Drugs are a bigger problem today than ever.
Cocaine use in the Netherlands is also at an all-time high. Statistics show that in 1997 approximately three per cent of the population admitted to having used cocaine at least once in their lives. By 2018, this had increased to more than five per cent.
The illegal status of hard drugs in the Netherlands has also not worked. If there is one thing we have learned from the decriminalisation of cannabis, it’s that the cannabis trade can be regulated, taxed, and new policies developed for the improvement of the sector. We also don’t have (cannabis) drug rings fighting over ‘territories’ anymore.
The same cannot be said of the hard drugs trade in the Netherlands. At this point, decriminalising all drugs in the country seems like the best course of action. And there are precedents for decriminalisation. Portugal is a perfect example.
The Portuguese decriminalisation of all drugs
Portugal had a long and major drug problem. In 1999, no less than 1% of the population was addicted to heroin and other hard drugs. The country also had the highest number of drug-related HIV deaths in Europe.
Portugal decided to change course in 2001 and did the unthinkable. All drugs were decriminalised, which meant that the possession of small amounts of drugs was no longer a criminal offence. Possessing drugs for personal use is instead treated as an administrative offence: no longer punishable by imprisonment and does not result in the user having a criminal record and being stigmatised.
Therefore, drug users are not arrested but must appear before a special committee where a doctor, a lawyer, and a social worker prescribes treatment or issues a fine.
Following Portugal’s example would be so much better for the Netherlands because the American war on drugs — which the Netherlands is obviously copying when it comes to hard drugs — isn’t doing us any favours.
The balloon effect
The premise of this war has always been ‘fewer drugs = fewer (societal) problems’. Or ‘no drugs = no addiction’. Therefore, the focus has been to destroy the supply of drugs. However, a lot of people, especially politicians, find it difficult to understand that destroying ‘supply’ leaves the root cause of drug use untreated. Eliminating ‘supply’ will not make ‘demand’ go away.
There is also the balloon effect to think about. The ‘balloon effect’ draws an analogy between attempts to eradicate the production of illegal drugs and the phenomenon of the same name when a latex balloon is compressed: the air does not disappear but is moved to a place with less resistance.
Pushing down on drug production in one region causes it to bulge somewhere else. All US anti-drug tactics have done is they have forced drug traffickers to search for ‘safer areas’ with less government pressure to eliminate the flow of narcotics.
And this is mostly where the Netherlands and much of Europe come in. When cartels in South America first started trafficking narcotics, their major market was Florida and New York.
When the US kickstarted the war on drugs, they immediately started searching for new markets with less government pressure. Europe became that ‘new market’ or ‘safe area’.
Nowadays, traffickers often use the Netherlands as both a market and an entry point into Europe.
How the Dutch war on drugs is different
It is important to state that drug users are treated much differently in the Netherlands than in the US. Even though there are no talks about the decriminalisation of all drugs yet, the Netherlands focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment. For example, the advent of drug consumption rooms in the Netherlands has been a welcome initiative.
Note: Drug consumption rooms are where (homeless) people struggling with a drug addiction can use their drugs in a hygienic and quiet environment under the supervision of social workers.
However, it still doesn’t solve the stigma and other injustices that go hand in hand with the illegal status of hard drugs. Think about injustices like unlawful and unfair incarceration, racial profiling, etc.
The world is not black or white
Firstly, one must never look at life with a binary mentality. Life isn’t ‘black or white’ or ‘either-or’. You may not believe it, but the writer of this piece has never done drugs in his life. Not even smoked a cigarette, but it doesn’t mean that those who use drugs should be condemned or treated as outcasts.
It is perfectly possible not to be a marijuana user and still want it to be legalised for others. In the same way, you may have never used any (hard) drug but still understand that the so-called war on drugs is bollocks.
An ideal world would be where people stay away from hard/harmful drugs, but that is not a reality. There will always be demand for soft or hard drugs, and punishment instead of rehabilitation is not the right way to handle things.
Some people are also fully aware of the harm that certain drugs pose and are willing to accept all the risks, which in all honesty, is their choice, as long as they are not hurting others. What this group of people need is help, not to be locked up and treated like terrorists.
Time to try a different approach
It’s time to try a different approach in the Netherlands. To support this stance, let us take a closer look at Portugal. The Portuguese policy on decriminalisation has led to the following results:
- Drug-related HIV infections have decreased by 90% in 15 years.
- The number of drug-related deaths is now the second lowest in the European Union.
- Only three people per million die from an overdose, while the EU average is 17.3 per million.
- The number of adults who have used drugs in the past year is steadily decreasing.
- Fewer Portuguese young people use soft drugs in Europe.
- The number of drug-related criminals in Portuguese prisons has fallen from 44% in 1999 to 21% in 2012.
- The number of people in drug rehabilitation centres rose by 60% between 1998 and 2011.
The results of Portugal’s so-called radical plan were clearly positive. From 41% regular drug users in 2001 to 28% in 2012. The use of hard drugs, as well as the crime associated with it, decreased drastically. The number of HIV infections has also drastically reduced, as well as other drug-related problems.
However, decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation. Possessing or using drugs remains illegal in Portugal, but you won’t get a criminal record that stigmatises you for life because of it.
Benefits of decriminalising all drugs in the Netherlands
One big benefit of decriminalisation would be regulation. It would be better to take the drug trade away from cartels and drug traffickers and move it into licensed pharmacies or drug consumption rooms. This would greatly reduce the violence and bloodshed on the streets, as well as the workload for the police and other anti-drug agencies who spend so much time and effort chasing traffickers. Regulating the drug trade would also make the Netherlands so much safer in the long run. Furthermore, the Netherlands and much of Europe would be able to allocate funds that have long been wasted on the war on drugs to rehabilitation, education, and the provision of healthcare for those battling severe addiction.
- No more adulterated hard drugs
Another benefit is that ‘adulterated hard drugs’ would become a thing of the past. If all drugs are decriminalised, and addicts can easily access those drugs in pharmacies or drug consumption rooms, where doctors prescribe, for example, untainted, medical-grade heroin, and social workers are present to supervise the users, the number of overdoses and severely addicted people who often die from tainted drugs would greatly reduce.
- Room for better education
Decriminalisation would also mean being able to openly educate young people and talk to them about drugs and their effects on the human body. These effects of drugs can be taught in schools or through special weekly or monthly workshops organised by the schools and supervised by the ministries of education and health.
- Reduced stigma
The stigma attached to drugs would also start to dissipate with decriminalisation. For most young people, the first time they tried drugs was either due to peer pressure or wrong information from friends who mostly don’t know much about drugs. The absence of stigma makes talking about drugs and educating young people so much easier.
- A safer space to try drugs
Additionally, if young people are curious about trying a drug, it would be so much better for them to obtain it from a pharmacist who educates them on the effects and prescribes the proper dosage. This is much safer than getting the same drugs from a roadside drug dealer probably selling a tainted version.
- Overdose prevention
Ultimately, the most important benefit of decriminalising all drugs is that users can get them from clinics or pharmacies, and the severely addicted would have to be given dosages for use under supervision.
- A more comprehensive drug history
Another benefit is that huisarts (general practitioners) will have an overview of the kind of hard drugs their patients use or have used in the past so they can take this into account during treatments of minor or chronic illnesses.
Would decriminalising all drugs in the Netherlands work?
The fact is, not everyone is convinced that the decriminalisation of all drugs in the Netherlands (or anywhere) will save lives. The initiative often doesn’t work if not managed properly. But the truth is that the war on drugs has not borne any fruit. The collateral damage is way too much.
The decriminalisation of all drugs in the Netherlands and much of Europe would, in principle, mean that drug use would only have one victim: the user. By regulating drug use, the damage is limited, and time, effort, and funds are directed towards helping users overcome their addiction.
The point is, in the long run, decriminalisation will do more good than harm and make for better regulation. Drug dealers will also be less incentivised because why put so much energy into selling something legal, especially when the legal version is of better quality?
READ MORE | Your complete guide to drugs in the Netherlands
Decriminalisation also doesn’t mean that people are being encouraged to use drugs; instead, it’s all about trying to understand that addiction isn’t a sin. Addicts are not terrorists who should be thrown in prison and left to rot. They need help.
Society needs to understand that the demand for drugs is never going to disappear. People will try drugs either out of curiosity, peer pressure, the search for an escape from a difficult reality, recreational purposes, or just because they are addicted. And also that getting rid of the drug trade would still not get rid of the demand for drugs.
The idea behind this article is not to support the use of drugs but that we should at least start the conversation on how the war on drugs has not helped anyone. It’s a conversation that many politicians are afraid to start or engage in.
Think about the fact that alcohol is legal in the Netherlands but LSD is not. This is absurd because alcohol is so much worse than LSD. So why demonise the use of LSD while allowing the populace free access to something much worse? It’s even more absurd that conservative parties like ChristenUnie always throw out decriminalisation without mentioning its benefits or disproving the relevant arguments against the war on drugs.
“It is high time we replaced punishment with aid,” Norwegian Health Minister Bent Høie said in February when talking about his country’s efforts to decriminalise all drugs. “Punishment for the possession of hard drugs leads to stigma and social exclusion.”
Oregon moved ahead in 2020 with the decriminalisation of all drugs, a trend that already exists in more than thirty countries, with more than fifty different models of decriminalisation policies. The war on drugs makes no sense, and Uruguay was brilliant to have stayed out of it. They never joined the war on drugs: this can be seen in the fact that they were the only country that never had the need to decriminalise or legalise the personal use of cannabis because it was never a criminal offence to start with.
Maybe it’s high time the Netherlands joined the decriminalisation trend. There’s a lot to learn from the progress of countries like Portugal. And even more we can learn from countries and cities that are following in their footsteps.
Do you think that decriminalising all drugs in the Netherlands would save lives or make things worse? Let us know what you think in the comments!
Feature Image: FussSergei/Depositphotos