Drugs? Dutch courage needed

July 10, 1998

The Netherlands has a uniquely liberal policy on drugs, and it is an approach MP and academic Rick van der Ploeg would like to see adopted in other European Union countries. Huw Richards reports

That's all very well, but you don't have to live here." Academics and politicians who pronounce on social policy often have to contend with the accusation that they live lives of suburban comfort, a long way from the reality of the issues they address.

That jibe can hardly be levelled at Rick van der Ploeg, professor of political economy at the University of Amsterdam, Labour MP in the Dutch Parliament and a leading proponent of the country's uniquely liberal policy on drugs. For van der Ploeg lives just a minute's walk away from a coffee shop - one of the cafes licensed to sell cannabis - in the heart of Amsterdam's red-light district with its porn shops, peep shows and prostitutes posing in windows. It is a district he has immense affection for, saying that only in New York Village can you find a comparably eclectic mix of people.

Van der Ploeg, who is finance spokesman for the Labour party, the largest party in the coalition government, would like to see the Dutch attitude to drugs adopted elsewhere in the European Union. But the battle between different approaches to drugs is likely to be one of the key conflicts as European integration gathers pace early next century. The liberal Dutch policy stems back to the 1970s when Koos Swart, son of the then minister of health, could be heard on the radio reading out the prices of imported cannabis in a manner more normally associated with stock exchange reports. "Back then everybody was using the stuff. The approach has been to accept that fact, keep it in the open and retain some form of control," van der Ploeg says.

The Dutch policy distinguishes sharply between hard and soft drugs. Hard drugs are not tolerated, but are treated as a medical rather than a public order problem. "Drugs come largely under the minister of health rather than the minister of justice." Dealers in hard drugs are hammered - 12-year sentences are not uncommon. Users are helped with clean needles and medical care. "One result is that most hard-drug addicts in the Netherlands hold down regular jobs. The people you see shooting up in Amsterdam are the minority who slip through the system, but most live normal, productive lives."

Cannabis is tolerated - decriminalised rather than legalised - and sold through licensed "coffee shops". "Each shop has a licensed dealer who will offer you a book of samples, rather like a stamp album, from which you can choose. If they are discovered selling ecstasy, heroin or speed - or selling to minors - they are closed immediately. But they make so much money that there is little incentive for them to do so."

Openness means the coffee shops come under a variety of state regulation, including health and safety rules and the taxation system. A similar approach is taken to prostitution. "The rule has always been that if there is an income, whether legitimate or not, then it should be taxed." The spirit of pragmatism, he concedes, has sometimes gone too far - earlier this year he led a successful campaign to remove tax-deductible status from weapons used by criminals.

The alternative approach is that used by most other countries - containment accompanied by "war on drugs" rhetoric. France has used European bodies to put pressure on the Dutch, arguing that Dutch tolerance provides a route into France for drugs and users. It was French pressure that led to the maximum single sale of cannabis in coffee shops being cut from 30g to 5g. Van der Ploeg's view that President Jacques Chirac of France is playing to his domestic gallery is widely shared in the Netherlands; connoisseurs of the scurrilous postcard can add a picture purporting to be of Chirac lighting a joint to their collections if they visit Amsterdam.

What angers van der Ploeg is that countries that pride themselves on a hardline approach have worse drug problems than the Netherlands: Britain and France have nearly twice as many hard drug users proportionate to population - and France has four times as many drug-related deaths.

He recognises that one factor working against his preferred policy is the prevalence of sound-bite politics. "The easiest and often most effective thing politically is just to say 'get tough'." As a longtime watcher of British politics - he was a student at Sussex, and worked at both King's College and the London School of Economics - he admits to mild bemusement at New Labour's strong streak of social authoritarianism.

Yet even in Britain he senses a shift in attitudes. "It is ironic that the police and the churches now seem to be more progressive than the Labour Party. But the politicians are more open on the issue than they were in the 1970s."

Elsewhere in Europe there are positive moves towards the Dutch approach. "Some German states are seriously considering it, as is Belgium. In Zurich, the approach is now very similar to what you see in Amsterdam."

There are, inevitably, domestic Dutch pressures to shift policy back towards the Anglo-French approach. The Christian Democrats and the centre-right VVD, Labour's partner in the country's so-called "Purple Coalition" government have always regarded the policy warily and would certainly oppose any further liberalisation measures. But the shift to the left in May's general election means van der Ploeg may be able to accomplish one cherished project - allowing domestic cannabis producers to supply coffee shops.

The cultivation of cannabis remains illegal in the Netherlands - but has, with the application of traditional horticultural skills, become an important business producing a high-quality plant - with the Super Skunk brand particularly prized. "There are four different varieties, varying from one which gets you high to one which blows your head off," explains van der Ploeg.

He argues that it is illogical to ban these producers, who could be regulated and taxed, from supplying the coffee shops. He believes that he can attract enough support from minority leftwing groups to push his view through. "Sometimes it is possible to do deals with parties outside the coalition to get a policy your coalition partners do not want. It is a bit like committing adultery," he explains.

There are more serious worries about the way the Netherlands has become a significant ecstasy-manufacturing and trading centre. "I am ashamed of this." But again the preferred response is pragmatic rather than retributive - to ensure that supplies of the drug are analysed medically before raves, with the aim of avoiding the tragedies that have followed the sale of impure tablets.

So will we ever see coffee shops and a tolerant drugs policy in the UK? "One thing it should not be described as is legalisation. If you start with that word you will frighten people off. But I don't doubt that Britain could adapt - it seems to me to be an essentially tolerant society, which has been able to accommodate, for instance, ethnic minorities and gays."

He even points to a possible future for Britain as a world leader in research on the medical uses of cannabis, noting that Dutch company Horta Pharm has been granted a licence to export cannabis seeds for use by British company GW pharmaceuticals.

He is less sanguine about the prospects for France. "I find it hard to imagine the country that has the gendarmerie making the necessary adjustments," he says.

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