Source: De Pers
6 december 2007
By: Marten Blankesteijn / Myrthe Hilkens
Repression doesn’t work
Legalisation of all drugs will improve public health. That is what some of the real experts say: cocaine is getting cleaner, THC-values in cannabis are falling and information leaflets do help.
‘To me the global government intrusion into the individual drug use, is nothing more than paternalistic terror. I find it totally insane.’ These are the words of dr. Erik van Ree, who holds the chair Eastern European history and science of Europe at the University of Amsterdam. In his spare time he sometimes uses intoxicants. ‘A line or a pill every once in a while for me is perfectly normal. A small minority seems to get into trouble when using narcotics, but the majority of users can handle their use just fine. Just like me.’
At the end of the nineties Van Ree was an activist for a more tolerant drug policy. Together with scientists, addiction health care experts and people from the business world he was a part of the Committee for Recreational Drug use (Comité voor Recreatief Druggebruik). These people were all proponents of decriminalising and legalising drug use, and opponents of the current total prohibition policy. ‘Back then I devoted quite some energy to the legalisation cause. Not any more. The system is completely stuck, while numerous intellectuals witness that repression is totally ineffective.’ After the plea for legalisation of the former chief commisionar of Amsterdam police, Eric Nordholt and law professor, Theo de Roos in this newspaper last week, Van Ree felt urged to contribute to the discussion.
‘An important alibi to hold on to total prohibition, is the fact that nobody can exactly predict the consequences of legalisation. I think in Holland these effects are known. Mushrooms and cannabis can be acquired in legal outlets. Users could be cramming up every closet in the house with drugs. This doesn’t happen. In other words, things don’t get out of hand as some might fear. I think we would see the same thing with hard drugs.’
Gust De Wit, former council member of PVDA (social democrats) in Amsterdam, ex-collaborator of GGD (health care institution) and currently director of his own practice for people with addiction problems: ‘If heroine would become legal today, you will not run out to the grocer’s to get some. I won’t either. You can drive 120 mph with most modern cars. When you get into an accident at that speed, you’re dead, and so most of us take it easy on the road.’
Addicts practicing safe use, may actually live a full life
Globally, hundreds of billions euros cross the counter, in an effort to totally ban drugs, the drug trade and drug use. Next year United Nations (UN) memberstates will meet to discuss the results of the current drug enforcement policy.
Ten years later the UN goal, ‘a world without drugs in 2008’, proves to be based on childish naivety. De Wit: ‘There’s a lot of money involved in addiction care too. Many groups of caretakers and therapists are often working with the same club of problematic cases. They regularly make up new therapies and treatment methods without evaluating the old ones and just keep the machine in motion.
‘Imprisoned by the mythical horror images and hypnotic fear of an injecting Christiane F. and a heavily addicted David S., everybody clings to repression as a means to fight these narcotics,’ states Van Ree. ‘But scientific correlations between policy and use remain to be proven. The United States, definitely the leaders in the war on drugs judging from their repressive policies, still have more drug problems than we have.
Peter Cohen, retired director of the Centre of Drugresearch (Centrum voor Drugsonderzoek), endorses this conclusion. ‘Cannabis prohibition is global and the plant is hunted everywhere, differences between countries are nevertheless enormous. In Dutch coffeeshops cannabis is readily available, but in terms of cannabis use we’re located somewhere in the middle of the charts. There’s no relationship between policies and the prevalence of drug use.‘ He compares the situation with Dutch abortion legislation. ‘The legalisation of abortion did not lead to more abortions. It did lead to safer abortions.’
The public health motive – prohibition policies protect civilians from the harmful effects of drugs with all good intentions – does not impress these gentlemen. On the contrary, public health could possibly benefit from legalisation. In this regard De Wit mentions worries about (too) high THC-levels in cannabis. ‘If the government would finally legalise cannabis, she could actually control THC-levels. Now cannabis is said to contain too much THC, but that’s an obvious repercussion of prohibition and the lack of control. Too much THC for some young people may cause nasty symptoms.’
Van Ree: ‘In my ideal system consumers can acquire legally controlled substances, without pollution and side-effects. If all kinds of stuff are sold in one place, sales assistants can provide extra information and a leaflet containing information like warnings against certain combinations of drugs. I don’t see the problem.’ Cohen adds: ‘Legalisation of drugs will not affect the prevalence of drug use, but identification and oversight of problematic users should become a lot easier. Fewer accidents will happen with more quality and potency control and age limits can be upheld more effectively.’
Roel Kerssemakers of Jellinek, an institution that provides information on drugs and help for those with drug problems, points out the opportunities for taxation. ‘A joint nowadays costs as much as one or two euros. A bargain, indeed. This price lowers the threshold. If the government would become supplier, drugs can be taxed. Cannabis will become more expensive, probably resulting in fewer users.’ If an experiment with cannabis legalisation turned out positive,’ Kerssemakers adds, ‘Jellinek would propose experiments with other drugs.’
Heroïne, the drug with the reputation of being extremely dangerous, is distributed legally at present. ‘To a very select group of addicts’, says De Wit ‘The recipients have to comply to a whole set of rules, though. The first research results indicate that the people who receive medical heroine legally, are doing very well. This shows that the connection between addiction and early death can easily be broken by allowing addicts to use drugs safely. I’m all for legalisation.’
The appeal for tolerance and a progressive approach occurs as Dutch politics tend to opt for more repression. Mushrooms will be added to the prohibition list next year. At some party’s police have become very zealous in their hunt for narcotics, even anal inspections are no longer shunned. Two drugs are spared from harassment. “Notwithstanding the fact that tobacco is terribly addictive,’ says an indignant Van Ree. ‘Alcohol can be as destructive as any other drug’, adds an evenly indignant De Wit.
‘In debates or at symposia on drug policy it’s hard to find intellectuals ready to take up the defence of the repressive approach. It just doesn’t make sense. But, anyhow, you can chew the fat as long as you like on this issue, in the end everything stays pretty much the same. The momentum at the time is tilting towards more prohibition, more suppression. I also notice that there barely are any young people to relieve us in keeping up the pressure for better policies.’
‘Alcohol and tobacco are as harmful as hard drugs. Scientists from the University of Bristol reached that conclusion earlier this year. Researchers analyzed addiction processes and the harm they caused to the physical health of the user and society. According to their ranking alcohol and tobacco were regarded as less dangerous than heroine and cocaine, but more dangerous than other hard drugs, like ecstasy and LSD. Alcohol and harddrugs evenly harmful?
Few drug mortalities
In 2005 almost 19.000 adults died as a direct consequence of smoking. Alcohol took away 800 Dutch citizens directly and another 1.000 indirectly. Drugs are at the bottom of the list. Statistics on death causes of the Central Bureau for Statistics show that in 2005 122 people died of an overdose. Compared to other European member states, drug mortality is rather low in Holland.