By RNW.nl – June 2001
In recent years national drug policies of other European countries have shifted considerably and on a European level the emphasis of policy has changed as well. In general, priority has shifted from repressive policies towards prevention, care and harm reduction. Not surprisingly then, many elements of this new approach are reminiscent of what has been put into practice in The Netherlands for decades.
Although coffee shops will forever stay a unique Dutch phenomenon, possession of cannabis for personal use has been depenalised in countries like Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Elsewhere it is low on the list of priorities for the Public Prosecutor. The case for cannabis on medical prescription is being studied everywhere.
Wind of Change:
Most European countries now make a distinction between hard and soft drugs, not only in enforcement of the law, but also in policy. Syringe exchange programmes have become accepted in nearly all EU member states, low-threshold services to addicts are on the increase, as are substitution treatment programmes. Experiments with user rooms (where hard drugs can be consumed under hygienic and supervised conditions) are underway in Germany, Spain, Luxembourg and Austria. They have been common practice in The Netherlands for years. Treatment for addicted offenders as an alternative to punishment is widely accepted throughout the European Union.
On a European level the adoption of the European Union Drugs Strategy (2000-04) marked a change as well. It put public health concerns and prevention first, where formerly combating drug trafficking was the overall priority.
What prompted this change of heart in the European capitals? First and foremost it is because of the aids epidemic that public health arguments found their way into European drug policies. The threat of the spread of the HIV-virus through intravenous drug use defined drugs not just as a criminal issue but also as a public health problem.
This new approach was strengthened when in the second half of the nineties social democratic parties came to power in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy, four major EU members. They are more open to pragmatic and liberal approaches to the drug problem.
Also, because drug use increased sharply in the eighties and nineties it became clear that repressive policy had failed. Politicians gradually got round to the idea that experimental drug use is inevitable in modern society.
And last but not least, the example of the Dutch experience and of small-scale innovative experiments elsewhere (for example Switzerland) contributed to a more balanced approach.
In the next few years the European Union will work towards a common drug policy. The Netherlands will no longer be the odd one out as its European partners have gradually shifted to a harm-reduction policy. The price The Netherlands will have to pay for this rapprochement is that it can no longer go it alone on drug policy. In the near future it will have to revise essential elements of its policy and bring it in line with the rest of the European Union.