Joint appeal

December 26, 1997

Dutch economist Rick van der Ploeg tells Huw Richards that his country's drugs policy is successful because it is pragmatic enough for maiden aunts

You have to tolerate a little, in order to avoid much worse problems." In one sentence economist Rick van der Ploeg sums up the underlying pragmatism of Dutch policy on drugs. It is, he told a recent London meeting organised by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, a typically Dutch approach, echoing the country's long-established system of flood control, where locks are opened to ease pressure by letting a little water in under controlled conditions.

"Pragmatic" rather than "liberal" is the key word. Van der Ploeg, professor of political economy at the University of Amsterdam, is dismissive of the Independent on Sunday campaign for the legalisation of cannabis. "Complete liberalisation just isn't on in a European context. You need something much subtler." He is even less impressed by the 'war on drugs' rhetoric of many western governments.

The Dutch approach, he admits, is "a bit schizophrenic. The law dictates a very tough attitude, but in practice the legal system turns a blind eye to many things." Nonetheless, he cites a formidable list of statistics to show that it works - Holland has the lowest level of hard drugs users and drug-related deaths in Europe, and a considerably lower incidence of recreational drug use among young people than in more restrictive Britain and France.

"We are tough where necessary, and tolerant where possible," he says, sounding like the Labour politician he also is, as a member of the European Parliament. The Dutch treat drugs as a medical rather than a public order issue, drawing a distinction between dangerous and soft drugs."Cannabis is less dangerous and less addictive than sleeping tablets, alcohol or nicotine. But we are tough on heroin, cocaine and ecstasy". Tough on dealers and traffickers too, though users are allowed regular medical check-ups and, as an anti-Aids measure, free syringes.

The key to Holland's tolerance of soft drugs is the nationwide system of "coffee shops", which are allowed to sell small quantities - a maximum of five grams per customer - of cannabis for personal use. "This toleration has strict conditions. The premises must be clean - they have the same public health requirements as any other shop. They must not sell to minors.And there must never, under any circumstances, be any hard drugs there." A further consequence of this regulated tolerance is that staff and owners pay tax on their earnings.

Most coffee shops are places where you can take a maiden aunt - Van der Ploeg, who has a mischievous sense of humour, admits to doing so. "You can also get a very good cup of coffee and excellent cakes, although you have to be careful which cakes she chooses."

One consequence of the system has been the development of an indigenous cannabis industry, diverting traditional Dutch horticultural skills to the crop. This too is illegal - there are periodic police seizures and burnings of crops - although Van der Ploeg and Dutch Labour advocate the creation of a system of "accredited growers" allowed to sell to the coffee shops. He also points to the immense profits made by many shop owners through a virtual monopoly position as cannabis suppliers and argues that licences should be auctioned rather than merely awarded by local councils.

The Dutch policy continues to be regarded with some alarm by European partners, particularly France. "President Chirac has suggested that France's drug problems are imported from Holland. Since levels of use are much higher in France, this seems unlikely," says Van der Ploeg. French pressure led to the reduction from 30 to five grams of permitted maximum coffee shop transactions. "It seems to me that all this will do is make people visit the coffee shops more often," he says. And pressure from France was a factor in the designation of ecstasy as a dangerous drug.

One reason for apparent Dutch success has been the way it has detached drugs from criminality. Another and perhaps subtler one is the impact of the tolerant drugs policy on the young. "If you are young and you are told not to do something, you immediately want to do that. If it is accepted, it becomes much less attractive," says Van der Ploeg.

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