The Netherlands – Narcostate or role model?
By RNW.nl – March 2001
For nearly a quarter of a century, liberal drug laws have been in force in The Netherlands. Personal use of cannabis has been decriminalised and hard drug addicts are treated as patients rather than criminals. The object of this policy is to minimise harm to drug users and to society as a whole.
It is a pragmatic policy, tacitly accepting that drugs are part of society and that any “War on Drugs” won’t make them go away. That does not mean that drug dealers have an easy life in The Netherlands, because importing, selling, producing and/or possessing either hard or soft drugs is still an offence under Dutch law. But prosecuting drug takers is not a priority for the Dutch judicial system, whereas putting drug dealers behind bars is.
All this is rather difficult to explain to the outside world. To many, the Dutch policy of turning a blind eye to such technically illegal practices seems outrageous. And there is a popular misconception that drugs have been legalised in The Netherlands and that everything is allowed. That could never be the case, of course, as The Netherlands is party to several UN Conventions and to European treaties on drugs.
So what does the Dutch lenient drug policy actually entail and does it work? Advocates of the Dutch way claim that in The Netherlands the number of drug users is lower than in most other European countries and certainly lower than in the United States with its policy of zero-tolerance. They also claim that drug use in The Netherlands is more ‘controlled’ in the sense that users are not marginalized and do not need to buy their drugs in a criminal environment.
Opponents claim that drug use among Dutch youngsters has exploded in the past few years and that the relatively easy availability is a threat to young tourists. Also, they say The Netherlands has become the preferred operating base of international drug traffickers, certainly for ecstasy, and is virtually a ‘narcostate’. In the mid-nineties, exports of ecstasy from The Netherlands and the growth of drug tourism led to rather strained relations between The Netherlands and some of its neighbours and to a war of words with France.
In recent years, however, a number of European countries have been rethinking their drug policies and are seemingly veering towards the Dutch model. In some countries users of cannabis are not prosecuted. Even distribution of heroin under medical supervision is under debate. At the same time, Dutch drug laws have toughened. This rapprochement leaves The Netherlands less isolated and paves the way for a much-needed pan-European drug policy.