by Alex Rowan

This past October, I, like so many travelers before me, travelled to the Netherlands knowing little more about the country than that that I could buy pot or hash from my corner “coffee shop”. I stayed not in Amsterdam itself, but in a nearby town named Hilversum, about 20 minutes by train outside of the city. While the folks I met in Amsterdam couldn’t fathom my decision to sleep away from the action, in retrospect I feel that the decision (which was prompted simply by the lower cost of accommodation) helped me to develop a far more informed view of the country than I would have otherwise. As with so many countries in which one major urban hub is viewed as culturally supreme, to know Amsterdam is to know an incredible metropolis, but is not to know the life of the (for lack of a better term) “average” Dutchman. Throughout the time I spent in Hilversum, I was able to observe the manner in which the liberal drug policies of the country are both influenced by and influence the sensible mindset of the bulk of Dutch people, a mindset which I will forever admire and strive to propagate.

At the center of Dutch drug policy is the very mantra of CSSDP, that to ignore, hide, or simply condemn a prevalent issue in society does nothing to combat it. In fact, the more illicit an activity, the more appealing it is to many, and the less it can be effectively monitored. From what I’ve seen, the studies that have come out of the Netherlands on drug use at home and abroad have in many cases proven to be comprehensive than those of their international counterparts. I feel that the reason for this is because there is a true faith among the people that the government is out to gain knowledge to better improve public health, rather than to wage war. Furthermore, as there is no conclusive evidence to link marijuana use to the use of harder drugs (i.e. the gateway affect), the Dutch government will never assume that a marijuana user is also a hard drug user. In speaking to the Dutch folk I met about their drug use and their run-ins with officials, it became clear that they had always been forthcoming in a way that, as a jaded Canadian youth who has had her share of negative experiences with the cops, I had never even imagined. Again aligned with the mantra of the CSSDP, the Opium Act outlines the view that drug use should always be seen as a health issue first, and a criminal justice issue second. That being said, trafficking of illegal drugs is still a criminal offense, and initiatives are consistently underway to prevent the trafficking of what the Opium Act classifies as ‘hard drugs’, for example heroin and cocaine. What is this Opium Act, you query? Also called the Narcotics Act, it is the most important piece of drug legislation active in the Netherlands, and was first enacted in 1919, following an international conference headed by the USA. With a pivotal change in the policy to make the distinction between hard and soft drugs in 1976, Marijuana use in the Netherlands was decriminalized.

It begs the question: if drug trafficking is still considered illegal, how is that coffee shops exist with little to no governmental interference? The Opium Act includes the following key provisions: no legal action against a coffee shop shall be taken as long as no minors are permitted entrance, no promotion is done for the establishment, sales capped at five grams per person, and no more than 500 grams are on the premises at any given time. Cultivation, while also technically illegal, is dismissed up to five plants, and jail time is extremely rare even in cases of large-scale growth. So just remember smokers, five is the Netherlands’ magic number. While many a conservative politician has tried to prove that the Netherlands’ liberal drug policies have increased Cannabis and other drug use, in fact, as we can well predict, they have had the opposite effect. According to one comparison pieced together by from the U.S. and Netherlands’ national surveys, the lifetime prevalence of marijuana use in the Netherlands in 2001 was 17%, just under one half of the 36.9% stat for the U.S.
It is important to note that the Netherlands’ liberal drug policy extends beyond recreational use. The Netherlands became the first country to legalize euthanasia in 2002, provided such cases are put before a review committee by the physician who has deemed the procedure warranted. The Netherlands is also known for pioneering other conscientious public health initiatives such as heroin-assisted treatment, which has had great success in limiting the reliance on heroin and instances of overdose among heroin addicts.

Admittedly, a far greater respect and belief in social pluralism was present within the Netherlands government in 1976 than in the Canadian here and now, fostering the responsiveness to public need necessary for dramatic political change. Yet I remain inspired. Upon leaving the Netherlands, and this was reinforced in Portugal which also has more lax drug legislation, I was inspired to stop being a disenchanted, passive youth, and start truly believing what I wish I’d encouraged myself to believe all along, that a shift to health-oriented drug policy can be a reality. Here goes and cheers, I’m starting with this blog.

To find out more about the Netherlands’ drug policies and their relationship with drug use in the country, here are just a few of the great sites available to us:

Sophie Feltes