EU Countries soften cannabis policy
By RNW.nl – June 2001
National drugs policies within the European Union do not differ as much as you might think – at least not in implementation. This past week, experts and officials from around the EU met in the central Dutch city of Utrecht to exchange views at the European City Conference on Cannabis policy. The main conclusion: all European cities are having to contend with similar problems.
It was only natural to hold the conference in the Netherlands, one would have thought. After all, the Netherlands has passed legislation aimed at decriminalizing soft drugs such as hashish and marijuana. But The Netherlands is no longer leading the way when it comes to legalising drugs. It’s having to deal with the downside of its liberal policies, as Steven van Hoogstraten, the Director of Drugs policy at the Dutch Justice Ministry, pointed out.
“There are risks involved in the use of cannabis, even though we do not know precisely what these risks are. Cannabis is still an illegal substance in The Netherlands and we have obligations in the shape of international conventions in this respect.”
Nevertheless, the use of cannabis is allowed in the Netherlands. Coffeeshops are permitted to sell soft drugs, but only under strict conditions. And there’s the rub: the shops are allowed to sell cannabis, but purchasing soft drugs is still illegal and trading or growing cannabis remains a punishable offence. Steven van Hoogstraten acknowledges there are ambiguities.
“The results of our policy can be called acceptable. But from a government perspective, the situation is simply not satisfactory. On the one hand, we forbid something, on the other we tolerate it. This is difficult to explain to people.”
The Netherlands is still a frontrunner in Europe. But other European countries are catching up. Belgium’s federal government is preparing legislation aimed at legalizing soft drugs. It’s an indirect effect of the liberal policies of its northern neighbour: many Belgian youths buy their dope across the Dutch border but cause problems in their own country.
France used to be vehemently opposed to the Dutch liberal approach, but it’s now relaxing its tough drugs laws, too. In recent years, the French government has treated drugs-related problems as “health matters”, with the emphasis on prevention and the treatment of addicts.
Portugal is about to go a step further than the Netherlands: in July, it passed a law decriminalising the use of all drugs and it’s now turning a blind eye to the limited use of soft and hard drugs. Danila Ballota of the European Drugs Monitoring Centre in Lisbon, explains the new Portuguese law.
“A person who is caught in possession of a limited amount of drugs will not be treated as a criminal but will be dealt with in an administrative way.”
This applies to both cannabis and heroin, where limited users will get off with a reprimand.
Official policies may differ among EU member states, but in practice these countries often act in the same way. All have to deal with drugs-related problems such as rising crime rates. This has led to a plethora of aid programmes ranging from the free distribution of drugs to tolerating cannabis abuse. There’s only one EU country that doesn’t believe in legalisation: it’s Sweden and Malou Lindholm, representing the city of Goethenborg, explains why.
“In the 1960s, Sweden was actually the first country to adopt a drug liberal policy, well before the Netherlands. We didn’t single out cannabis, we even allowed prescriptions of hard drugs for addicts. The results were devastating. The number of people starting to abuse drugs or becoming addicts just sky-rocketed.”
If it’s up to Sweden, there will be no change to its current tough policy on drugs. This puts a major obstacle in the way of a common European policy on drugs. But it also means that there remains a lot to talk about. A follow-up conference is scheduled for February in Brussels.