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Netherlands: Efficiency of Drugs Policy Under Scrutiny

(Mar. 2, 2008) For three decades, the Netherlands has had a tolerant policy towards drugs, having decided in the mid 1970s to distinguish between cannabis and hard drugs, "which no other country does officially." According to Bert Bieleman of the Intraval Research Bureau, "[t]he Dutch drugs policy seems reasonably successful in comparison with that of other countries," and in his view, "there 'seems' to be less mingling of the soft and hard drugs markets than elsewhere, and addicts' living conditions are 'reasonableā€ in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out, "persistent foreign criticism cannot be refuted because a thorough assessment is lacking." To that end, on March 6, 2008, Boris van der Ham, a D66 [Democrats 66] Member of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament, was expected to seek a quick assessment of the policy and the establishment of a "drugs think tank" to facilitate discussion of the best drugs strategy by politicians, social workers, and scientists. "The Netherlands owes it to itself and to the international community," in the view of Thanasis Apostolou of the International Dialogue on Drugs Policy Project, to assess the drugs policy's successes and shortcomings, because that could lead to its being "much more effective." (Parliament to Evaluate Efficiency of Netherlands Drugs Policies, HANDELSBLAD, Mar. 3, 2008, Open Source Center No. EUP20080304024008.)

The possession and cultivation of soft drugs is technically illegal in the Netherlands, but until relatively recently, the auuthorities have had a policy of non-enforcement of the law. Although in the last few years some local politicians have cracked down on the coffee shops that make the substances available, a German online news source reported "it is unclear whether the reduction in the number of coffee shops has actually resulted in a decrease in drug consumption and drug tourism," and the drugs have also now been engineered to have greater effectiveness. According to the news report, it is that effectiveness that has given rise to the call for reconsideration of the definition of "soft" drugs by policymakers, some of whom advocate bringing Dutch policy in line with international standards by means of a complete ban on all illicit drugs, hard or soft, while others call for soft drugs to be legalized to make the current policy of tolerance consistent in terms of form and practice. (Dutch Coffee Shops Close as Authorities Weed Out Drug Tourists, DEUTSCHE WELLE, Apr. 29, 2007, available at,2144,2459387,00.html.)

Despite the planned parliamentary discussion, according to a recent article in the Dutch newspaper HANDELSBLAD, "rapid change in the Dutch drugs policy is not to be expected." (Parliament to Evaluate Efficiency of Netherlands Drugs Policies, supra.) While the Members of Parliament of the D66, the Green Left, and the Socialist Party are in favor of the complete legalization of soft drugs, there is apparently insufficient support for it, but there is also insufficient support for a complete ban of the substances. Another factor in the Dutch Parliament's drugs policy debate is the stance the Netherlands will adopt towards the international drugs treaties, which are to undergo scrutiny in 2008 and 2009. The HANDELSBLAD article avers "[e]xperts call the UN treaties in the area of drugs hopelessly antiquated and inhuman" and takes note of Apostolou's view that the country should urge the United Nations to abolish the liability to punishment of soft drug users. Because the Netherlands does not have much scope to steer its own course, however, experts in the Netherlands argue "adjusting the treaties is the best thing." (Id.)