The Netherlands: world innovators on the use of drugs.
I was invited to address the Global Federation of Speakers Summit in Noorwijk, The Netherlands. This is a beautiful little town about 40 minutes from Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.
To start, I will tell you that I paid the most expensive taxi ride in my life, $150.00 for a 40 minute ride. The obvious question is how much is it for a gallon of gas in the Netherlands?
Almost 8.00 a gallon the driver from Turkey told me.
Another observation that is common knowledge throughout the world is that in Amsterdam you may just enter a coffee shop and buy drugs, in fact, you are handed a menu with the drugs of the day, and believe it or not, with a special on the menu. Prices are cheap; you pay for four joints the equivalent of 20 cigarettes. Nobody will throw you in jail because it is legal. I might add that I have no taste for the stuff, I have never tried it and I never will, it is just not in me, not attractive at all. Maybe the fact that I have played and still play sports all my life has something to do with it or the fear that to do that might have a long range side effect on my brain. As it is, some people think I am crazy. (Just joking)
Aren’t the Dutch concerned about the real dangers of drug abuse I asked myself? Well, it seems that drug laws evolved as the law in other countries during the past 100 years but the solutions taken in the Netherlands differ from the rest of the world.
Dutch drug policy is unique in the whole world and it is driven by the idea that every human being may decide about the matters of its own health. The Dutch consider this rule as fundamental, accepting for example the possibility of the controlled suicide (euthanasia) for terminally ill patients.
Another mind set in that incredible country guiding their drug policy is a deep belief that hiding social negative phenomena does not make them disappear, on the contrary, makes them much worse, because when concealed, they become far more difficult to influence and control. What an interesting thought!
Applying these ideas to their drug laws the Dutch try as much as possible to decriminalize the use of drugs, making it a private matter of each individual, not a matter for the enforcement apparatus. To produce, trade or stock drugs remains a criminal offence, as in any other country.
Contrary to popular belief, many legal systems all over the world do not punish people for the use of drugs, but for their possession. So the citizens are sent to jail for having a marijuana cigarette, not for smoking it. The Dutch see this distinction as purely formal. Statistics show that almost half of Americans openly admit to having smoked marijuana (even if not always admitting to inhaling it as you may recall President Clinton’s example).
The so called war on drugs, started by President Richard Nixon in the 1970’s resulted in the country employing enormous, expensive efforts enforcing strict drug policy and incarcerating hundreds of thousands of its citizens, often for just minor offences.
The law of the unintended effect took hold here by making the drugs a forbidden fruit which increased their attraction. On the contrary, a theory that the consumption of cannabis may lead to the use of more dangerous drugs is still being debated with many clinicians taking both sides of the argument.
Simply put, the Dutch see the use of drugs as a health matter, similar to smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol and in fact not very distant from being overweight. They also remind Americans that oppose their laws that prohibition of alcohol in the US from 1919 to 1933 brought more negative effects of increased criminality than positive social changes and as we all know, the law was eliminated.
I should clarify, just in case some of our wealthier members of society get the wrong idea, that the Dutch have divided drugs into two groups, depending on their influence on human health, as soft and hard. Hard drugs such as cocaine, LSD, morphine and heroin are forbidden as in any other country in the world.
Soft drugs such as cannabis in all its forms (marijuana, hashish, hash oil) are legal under the condition of personal use with some conditions such as doing it in a coffee shop, small portions, 5 grams maximum transaction, sale only to adults, no minors on the premises, and no advertisement of drugs.
The Dutch do not see their tolerant policy towards limited soft drug use as some sort of miraculous, solve it all solution. They try to prevent the drug abuse through educational measures, closely monitoring the scene of the drug abuse, fighting with the consequences of the abuse by the health measures such as the free testing of ecstasy pills, the free syringe exchange program and the free methadone (a surrogate of heroine) supply program for the heroin users. Today in dozens of cities all over the country, these programs operate every single day, influencing somewhat life in the country. At the same time, Dutch authorities try to eliminate deadly illegal drugs by fighting drug trafficking. I repeat, through their tolerant policies towards soft drugs, they hope to be able to better control drug abuse.
An interesting statistic that our authorities here in Puerto Rico and for that matter in the US should compare with the Netherlands is the use of Marijuana by our youngsters. The statistical data provided by the Dutch certifies that among young people of medium age 28, only 16% have ever smoked marijuana. I suspect that our statistics are much worse.
Psychology tells us that soft drugs when widely accessible seem to lose much of their appeal.
Mexico’s President Calderon has been advising the US to change their drug laws since it has cost them thousands of death in a year. Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa just declared that drugs should be legalized.
My opinion? I am not ready to recommend this yet. I do believe that our society should look into the pros and cons of legalizing and not legalizing, politics and special interests taken out of the equation.
It is a tough choice, yet again, if we have a big problem with criminality here in PR and in the US, we must look for big solutions to eliminate or at least to improve our statistics on crimes.