Netherlands Drug Use In

Since the 1970s, drug use in the Netherlands has been shaped by a national policy that the Dutch characterize as ''harm reduction.'' To other nations, however, the policy has made the Netherlands the center of European drug use and drug trafficking. The continuing clash between the Dutch perception and the perception of outsiders shows no signs of abating. Dutch officials argue that heroin use is declining, while critics contend that Dutch youth have access to every type of drug.

After the explosion of drug use in the 1960s and 1970s, the Dutch government moved away from prohibition policies. The primary goal of the new policy was to reduce the harm that drugs caused to both the individual and to society. A corollary to this approach was that the efforts to control drugs should not cause more harm than the drugs themselves. The pursuit of this policy by the Netherlands has often resulted in bitter controversy with neighboring countries, which complain that the Dutch drug policy had undermined their own drug-control efforts.

The drug policy of the Netherlands has been characterized by two main principles—the separation of markets and the normalization of drug problems. The separation of markets principle is based on the idea that drugs can be classified pharmacologically according to their socially acceptable risks and that drug markets should be controlled on the basis of this classification. For example, in many societies ALCOHOL is a drug regarded to have acceptable risk, and the market for alcohol is legal for adults, with varying degrees of government regulation. The Dutch have decided that cannabis (Marijuana, Hashish) is also a drug of acceptable risk and therefore should be separated from the markets for HEROIN and COCAINE, which have an unacceptable risk. Because of international regulations, however, the cannabis market cannot be equated with the alcohol market. Thus cannabis trafficking still remains illegal in the Netherlands, although it has a low law-enforcement priority in many jurisdictions. The so-called AHOJ-G policy for marketing cannabis requires limited advertising; no hard drugs—cocaine or heroin—are allowed to be sold or on the premises; no social nuisance; no youths under 16 years of age; only small amounts—less than 30 grams—can be sold. This policy regulates the system of cannabis-selling coffeehouses that have sprung up in most Dutch cities. Additional local regulations require that the coffeehouses provide recreational facilities, such as pool tables, so that something more than cannabis is offered to the customers.

The second main principle of the Netherlands drug policy is the normalization of drug problems. This principle recognizes that much of the harm attributed to the use of hard-drugs, such as heroin, is based on negative definitions that are held by

A man lights up a pipe at "Cannibis Castle'' outside Nijmegen, the Netherlands, November 24, 1998. A marijuana user's mecca, the castle, owned by Sensi Seed Company, produces some of the most potent strains of the drug. (AP Photo/ Dusan Vranic)

society and internalized by the drug users. The principle of normalization leads to multiple efforts to reintegrate the heroin user into the community and to fight against his or her stigmatization. This is done by an extensive system of METHADONE Maintenance Programs (a widely used pharmacotherapy for heroin users), counseling, and social-service support. In addition, drug users are encouraged to organize self-help groups and to mobilize for positive changes in their own subcultures, all in the interest of increasing both their participation in and their responsibility for the development of the drug-use context.

Although the Dutch maintain these policies on drug use, the laws against drug trafficking and the consumption of hard drugs are at least as tough as those of other European nations. However, the Netherlands had emerged in the late 1990s as the leading manufacturer of synthetic drugs such as ecstasy. Moreover, drug enforcement officials in Europe and the United States see the country as a drug supermarket, where smugglers are relatively free to move drugs across borders.

The Dutch government has argued that its policies are working. It cites evidence that the population of heroin addicts is stable and rapidly aging, suggesting that heroin is out of fashion with young people. However, critics note that between 1988 and 1997, heroin addicts treated at Dutch methadone programs increased from 6,500 to 9,800, an increase of 50 percent. In addition, the government points out that the mortality rate among drug users is low, due to effective methadone programs. The number of addicts infected with HIV is very low, which is attributed to methadone programs, needle-exchange programs and counseling. While the government acknowledged that marijuana use had gradually increased in the 1990s, the rate of cannabis use was lower than that of the United States.

Research continues to play an important role in reformulating the system of Dutch drug use. A number of universities, along with private and governmental institutions, conduct research in almost every area of drug use. In general, this research seems to show that the drug policy of the Netherlands has been functioning positively. For example, it seems that the goal of reducing the secondary effects of drug abuse (e.g., AIDS, VIOLENCE) is being reached. Studies of cocaine use in nondeviant social groups in Amsterdam and in the general population of Rotterdam provide evidence that patterns of use do not always lead to negative consequences, although it is difficult to say who can use without experiencing harm. A longitudinal study of heroin addicts indicates that the normalization policy has been effective in diverting the career of heroin addicts from criminal to conventional, but has been less effective in getting heroin users clean. Nevertheless, Dutch policies remain controversial.

(SEE ALSO: Needle and Syringe Exchanges and HIV/AIDS; Sweden, Drug Use in)


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