ENCOD BULLETIN ON DRUG POLICIES IN EUROPE
NR 55 SEPTEMBER 2009
THE CANNABIS DEBATE IN THE NETHERLANDS
The moment that media and decision-makers take into account the real impact of prohibition on drug related problems, the supposed legitimacy of the prohibition regime will entirely disintegrate. This is the reason why Encod and other groups working for drug policy reform continue our efforts to challenge the status quo by organising conferences and marches, producing publications and websites, assisting international meetings where we ask critical questions to those responsible for maintaining drug prohibition. Our efforts are apparently without any noticeable success, since both authorities and mass media continue to focus on drugs without even questioning the fact that they are illegal.
But time is on our side. In those countries where a drug policy regime has been installed that is not based on total prohibition, reality itself shows that the only way forward is through a continuing dismantlement of this regime. Such is the case of the Netherlands, where the sale of small quantities of cannabis for personal use in coffeeshops has been tolerated since 1976. That means an entire generation has grown up surrounded by a climate in which access to cannabis for adults has been relatively normalised. Practically all remaining problems with cannabis (concerning either public health or safety) can be reduced to the fact that cannabis is still an illegal product, and therefore large scale cultivation and commercial distribution outside the coffeeshops remains in the hands of criminal organisations. This truth is crystal clear to all health experts, authorities and politicians, and even a large sector of the police force, so you could expect the country to be ready for taking the next step, which would be complete legalisation.
The current Dutch government, dominated by conservative Christian parties, in alliance with leading figures from the justice apparatus, are doing everything to prevent this from happening. Using all the manipulative tricks from the prohibitionist toolbox, they have forced the police to step up their fight against amateur home growers, which has only increased the involvement of criminal groups in cannabis cultivation. They blame the coffeeshops in cities close to the borders with Belgium and Germany for creating public nuisance due to the foreign tourists who prefer to buy cannabis in a safe environment instead of on the black market back home. Where this puiblic nuisance is succesfully reduced thanks to a workable agreement between local authorities and the coffeeshops (such as the case of Checkpoint in Terneuzen), national justice authorities decide to close the shop for having more than the tolerated 500 grammes in stock, a practical must when a shop receives thousands of clients each day. In several municipalities authorities have closed down coffeeshops that are located closer than 250 meters from a school, with the argument that this would prevent the use of cannabis by minors, ignoring the fact that cannabis use by minors in Holland is lower than in several countries that do not have any coffeeshops at all.
In the Dutch mass media the illusion as somehow been created that tolerant policies are to blame for problems that are actuallly created by the fact that they are not tolerant enough. However, it is difficult to predict how that situation will turn out in the end. For everyone, for or against cannabis, it is becoming clear that something must change: after 33 years of tolerant policies, the Dutch should either choose for complete legalisation or complete prohibition.
This choice is softly approaching. In the coming few months, the Dutch parliament is expected to discuss a new proposal of the government, one that will be based on several reports including that of the advisory committee led by Wim van de Donk, chairman of the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR), the highest advisory body in the Netherlands. The report, presented on July 1st, sends many positive signs on the phenomena of cannabis and coffeeshops. According to the committee, tolerance concerning cannabis has not failed, on the contrary: thanks to this policy the consumption of this substance by adults has obtained a legitimate place in Dutch society.
“This consumption, and the eventual negative consequences for public health related to it, are relatively low in the Netherlands compared to other EU member states, where prohibition is much more strictly applied”, writes the committee. “Thanks to the coffeeshops it is possible to contact and inform cannabis consumers, and carry out a policy to avoid public nuisance. A total prohibition of cannabis is therefore undesirable, and the validity of the argument with which some municipalities are currently closing down coffeeshops (the distance of 250 meters to a school) is dubious”
The committee presents 3 different options to further develop the coffeeshop model with a solution for the current “backdoor” dilemma, in which cultivation of cannabis remains prohibited and the coffeeshop owner is forced to maintain a schizophrenic position with one leg in the legal and the other in the illegal economy.
The first option is complete legalisation: coffeeshops would become normal shops, cannabis a normal product that may be bound only to specific rules such as age limits. According to the committee this option is not desirable yet as “it will not solve all problems with cannabis use, it will attract foreign tourists and it will mean that the Netherlands will have to denounce the UN treaties on drugs”.
These arguments can be neutralised fairly easily. Of course nobody expects legalisation to solve all problems, but it is precisely the Dutch experience that has shown that safe access to cannabis for adults does not lead to increased health problems. Neither will the measure lead to an increased flood of tourists, since the situation at the front door will not change. However, if the supply to coffeeshops would become legal it will be easier to reduce the public nuisance related to cannabis tourism and to discourage plantations that are destined for export or sale outside the coffeeshops. Finally, several legal experts have argued that the UN Single Convention leaves enough space to national authorities to elaborate their own policy concerning the consumption of drugs. Holland has used this margin to introduce the tolerant policy concerning the sale of quantities for personal consumption since the 1970s. It would be a logical step to extend this policy to full legalisation 35 years later.
However, in the current political climate in the Netherlands, legalisation of the cannabis market still seems far away. As in other countries, this proposal mainly provokes emotions, which makes a rational debate impossible.
The second option is to extend the tolerance of the sale in coffeeshops to the cultivation for these shops. The substance itself would remain illegal. The committee also refuses this option, as it would not end the involvement of criminal groups in this cultivation. Of course this observation is right, but the only logical response to it is that this problem can be solved exclusively by applying the first option.
The third option, the committee’s favourite, is to convert the coffeeshop into a closed “cannabis club” with a regulated supply. Clients should become a member of this club, that would organise the cultivation of the plants and offer the harvest in the shop that would only be accessible to members. While we would welcome this system in any other country outside the Netherlands, it is clear that in Holland this would be a step backwards. Registration of cannabis consumers is a discriminatory measure that will provoke lots of resistance in a country where cannabis has become a normal part of life. Besides, there is a serious risk that the shady situation at the backdoor would pass on to the frontdoor as well. A lively trade in club passes could be expected.
All in all, the Dutch cannabis debate this coming Autumn promises to become an interesting experience. After the report of the advisory committee it will be very difficult for the conservative hard liners to obtain a full stop to the tolerant cannabis policies. The Dutch government will have to mobilise all its spin doctors to avoid the conclusion that legalisation is the only option to make any progress. Most likely, no clear decision will be taken and the issue will be postponed until after the next elections, which are in 2011.
By: Joep Oomen, with the help of Peter Webster