Drug use in the Netherlands
By RNW.nl – June 2001
Dutch law evidently allows for a large degree of tolerance towards drug use. How has this affected drug use and addiction in The Netherlands? Has tolerance led to indulgence? How does The Netherlands compare to other European countries and to the champion of the ‘War on Drugs’, the United States?
In the past decade drug use increased in every country of the industrialised world, and The Netherlands proved no exception. The latest extensive survey of drug use in The Netherlands, conducted by the Centre for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam in 1997, confirmed the trend towards the increasing popularity of drugs. The most surprising outcome, however, was that the current number of cannabis users in The Netherlands is approximately 320,000 or about 2.5%, half of what was assumed. For the United States that percentage is more than double. And in most European countries the percentage of the population that has ever taken cannabis or is a current user is also higher than in The Netherlands. For all different types of hard drugs, the picture is much the same: The Netherlands ranks somewhere in the middle and compares favourably to the United States.
So why does the Dutch tolerance towards drugs not lead to excessive use? One possible explanation is that exactly because drugs are to a degree tolerated, they are viewed as no more exciting than tobacco or alcohol. Drugs are used out in the open, in coffee shops, and are not part of any mysterious subculture. Many Dutch youngsters experiment with cannabis (but still a lot lessthan in many other European countries) but once curiosity has been satisfied the majority stop taking it. And not many graduate to hard drugs either (the solaced stepping stone theory). Maybe it is just part of the Dutch psyche: people don’t easily indulge. Also, it is often the poor and down and out that revert to hard drug use. The Netherlands is a well-organised welfare state, with relatively little poverty.
Many experts and politicians have come to believe that drug use is more determined by youth culture and international trends, rather than the actual law, policy and law enforcement measures.
That does not mean, however, that The Netherlands is without its share of drug related problems: street crime, drug tourism and organised drug dealing syndicates. In the major cities especially, some impoverished areas are plagued by drug dealers. Residents move away in despair. A number of towns along the Dutch-German border are swamped by hundreds of drug tourists each day.
In its 1995 policy review the Dutch government sought to remedy these problems: it put priority on combating large scale drug trafficking and introduced new measures to fight drug related crime and drug tourism.