Article: A Repressive Climate Dominating the Dutch Drug Policy

The climate of responsible drug use in the Netherlands has reached its end. The rejection of advices from research institutes – such as the Municipal Health Service (GGD) and Trimbos Institute – by political leaders and the Public Prosecutor (OM) in order to maintain a harm-reduction policy towards drug users has changed. Instead, the emphasis is now on crime control. Not only has a zero tolerance policy towards drug use been established by the police in 2005 during the cabinet led by former Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende; this year, the so called ‘Wietpas’ (http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wietpas ) is introduced allowing only Dutch citizens to be able to buy cannabis or hasj at a coffeeshop. These measures will push the soft drug market slowly into the criminal sector.

The Netherlands, a country once known for its tolerance and compassion is no longer the same. Where does this change come from?

Media influence

Negative news stories in the mainstream media on drug abuse, like GHB (which has become known as the “rape drug”) or Ecstasy tablets containing fiberglass, have influenced the public opinion throughout the years. According to Laura Keizer, who is a prevention worker at Centrum Maliebaan (http://www.centrummaliebaan.nl/) and works at Unity Drugs (http://www.unity.nl/), the stories about the fiberglass tablets are a myth. “These tablets have never been found in our [Ecstasy tablet] test service. “It’s a sensational story just like the one that GHB is known as a date rape drug and put into drinks with the consequence of many girls getting raped.” She continues to say that looking back on the cases after a period of time, 90% of the girls involved claimed that they used GHB themselves but they chose to use the excuse of being slipped the drug in order not to feel embarrassed in front of their families. Commenting on a recent headline ‘Increase in GHB victims’, she says: “Like it is something that happens to you.”

Gert van Veen is a former journalist of Dutch newspaper the Volkskrant, and currently director of the Amsterdam based nightclub Studio80. He has a stronger opinion about the media: “I don’t have anything good to say about the media. The media has always had serious problems with the dance culture.” He continues to say: “Most newspapers had people employed from the rock scene, but for years I was the only journalist working for a major newspaper who wrote about the dance culture. I really was an outsider! When I left the Volkskrant, people writing about rock bands got employed again. Nobody at the newspapers understands the dance culture and the only thing they can report about it is never: ‘It was a great party or a great festival,’ but: ‘this many arrests.’ Broadly, there are very few journalists who understand the scene.”

Laura Keizer continues to explain: “Because of the media’s negativity, the police have to invest in this and show ‘look, this is what we have done.’ But some of the problems can not be solved by reacting to it violently or by putting more people on the job.”

Zero tolerance

According to an article in the Volkskrant (http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/2686/Binnenland/article/detail/892797/2008/08/16/lsquo-Zero-tolerance-drugs-ondoordacht-en-onnodig-rsquo.dhtml), the police have had many complaints because of their low detection rates in the past. The Netherlands has always put the emphasis on drug criminality; not on the use of it. By shifting the emphasis to drug users, large festivals are an easy target. This is beneficial to police statistics.

Why does the Dutch police force pursue these numbers and statistics? Why is it that the Dutch police force has shifted from an ‘anything goes’ policy to zero tolerance in only ten years?

In the mid 90s, the New York Police Department (NYPD) introduced the zero tolerance policy when the city of New York wanted to gain greater control over crime and make the city a safer place again. This ultimately became a great success and a new export product for foreign police corps.

According to Maurice Punch who conducted research commissioned by Police and Science (http://www.politieenwetenschap.nl/pdf/van_alles_mag_2006.pdf ), the Dutch police force have imitated the success formula of the NYPD during the 90s. In 2004, during the cabinet of Prime Minister Balkenende, the police force suffered great pressure from the government, a lack of trust among the population, and gained attention from both politics and the media. Police chiefs reacted by doing what managers in corporate businesses already did: quickly pick up fashionable ideas which they thought might lead to better results. He continues to say that the frustration of being under attack by an intrusive government, incident orientated administrators, rude media people and armchair scientists could have led to putting the emphasis on change and strong language.

Small crime

Tim Boekhout van Solinge is a former employee of the Center for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam, and is now related to the judicial faculty of the University of Utrecht. He said the following about zero tolerance in an article in Release Magazine (2006): “Police and judicial prosecutors do not follow the guidelines anymore. They act in an unnecessarily strict way. What is happening now is an investigation of the users. This is not consistent with the Dutch drug policy, as defined by the Public Prosecutor guidelines. These guideline have the status of law in the Netherlands.”

Maurice Punch claims that the Dutch police force has not copied the zero tolerance policy without critique. Although the progressive values within the Dutch police force are still intact and the Netherlands distinguishes itself from the United States punitive practices and ideas, the current drug policy shows otherwise.

Ton Nabben, drug researcher and instructor linked to the Bonger Institute at the University of Amsterdam, claims in his thesis High Amsterdam that the emphasis has shifted from disease prevention and health promotion to a crime control policy. Before the zero-tolerance policy was established, visitors of clubs and festivals were allowed to have two Ecstasy tablets. Nowadays, people can get arrested for taking half a pill.

Laura Keizer had a conversation with a police officer lately. She said to him that he wouldn’t invade a home to look for two Ecstasy tablets – in the knowledge that they’re more focused on arresting the producers and the dealers. The police officer responded: “Well, maybe we do.”

The focus on small crime is one of the elements of the zero-tolerance policy that is questioned by Maurice Punch. “The argument, that if one focuses on disorder and minor offenses, heavier crimes are automatically solved, may not be universal.” Although police statistics show that there have been more drugs confiscated after the zero-tolerance policy has been established, the quantities that are confiscated in clubs or at festivals remain small and insignificant, states Ton Nabben in Trends in alcohol, tabak en drugs bij jonge Amsterdammers (Antenne 2004). It indicates that the (small) dealers are not caught and that the numbers and statistics only show what is confiscated from visitors attending these events. Historian Marcel de Kort states in his book Between patient and delinquent. The History of Drug Policy in the Netherlands that the more the police search for drugs, the more they will find. One may conclude that shifting the use of drugs from a non-criminal act to a criminal act thickens police figures. 

Back to the underground

These measures have serious effects on the health and safety of people visiting parties. A drug dealer who wishes to remain anonymous says he doesn’t go to some local nightclubs anymore because of the heavy inspection. He does continue to visit smaller (illegal) events in and around the city. People whom this reporter spoke to claim to have seen the use of GHB in bars and pubs.

“The only thing that is changing because of the zero tolerance is a rise in illegal parties and more parties at home because people know that they won’t be checked there. And that’s the opposite of what the Netherlands want because there is no control of anything. If research were conducted, we could guarantee that the growth in numbers of the illegal parties is a direct result of this. And I see it when I’m at those parties. Everyone is wasted in a way that is beyond all reason,” says Gert van Veen.

This reporter visited illegal parties in the past, where a large number of people were passing out one by one. Also, the lack of safety at some locations resulted in at least one serious accident when a party goer fell from 4 meters height during an illegal rave and ended up severely wounded (http://www.rtvutrecht.nl/nieuws/335525/zwaargewonde-op-illegale-houseparty).

Change in behavior

Another effect of the zero tolerance policy is that people choose to take their drugs before going to the event, according to Duncan Stutterheim, director of event organization ID&T (http://www.djbroadcast.nl/news/newsitem_id=2151/Duncan_Stutterheim_Zero_tolerance_doet_ons_de_das_om.html). Laura Keizer, who recently visited a big event with Unity Drugs says: “I spoke to some people who seriously took three pills and a thick line of amfetamine before they went in to not get caught. There is a very strange atmosphere going on when people are completely wasted and not able to communicate anymore.”

Gert van Veen says, “The Netherlands has always had a more relaxed attitude towards drug use in the past. Since the rise of the CDA (Christian Democratic Party) in the 21st century, the influence of the United States’ zero-tolerance policy has been huge. Everyone who works in the drug abuse treatment knows this. It is mainly politics:’The War on Drugs.’ Numbers show that there are more addicts in the United States per capita than in the Netherlands. Look at a city like Amsterdam – internationals think that everything is possible in this city. The reality is completely different. Amsterdam residents don’t use pot all the time. Yet the moment that it is prohibited and restrictive measures are used, doesn’t mean it diminishes. Instead people use it out of sight of police officers. Pressurized by the United States, the Netherlands has consented in this.”

United States influences

Looking back into history, the criminal prosecution of drug use started in the Netherlands after the first Opium conference in 1909 on the initiative of the United States. The increase of medical drug use within society and the rising problems surrounding general drug use was already evident earlier in the U.S. before it appeared in the Netherlands. Countries such as England, Germany and the Netherlands that shared these economic interests, continued the trade in opium and cocaine until the United States issued a threat, which ultimately lead to the International Opium Act of January 23rd 1912, with 60 signatory countries (http://www.rnw.nl/nederlands/article/honderd-jaar-war-drugs-begon-den-haag).

The signing of the United Nations (UN) treaty in 1961 has imposed on the Netherlands an international duty to resolve drug problems; this limits their capabilities on a national level. The ‘War on Drugs’, a term first used by former U.S. President Nixon in 1971, has led to the start of a campaign to reduce the illegal drug trade worldwide. In the year 2000, former U.S. President Bill Clinton accused the Netherlands of not handling well the illegal export of Ecstasy. This has led to an increase in cooperation between the Netherlands and the U.S. . in order to counteract drug smuggling. In 2003, the Volkskrant reported that every year an average of ten Dutch citizens stand trial in the U.S. for Ecstasy smuggling (http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/2668/Buitenland/article/detail/739774/2003/07/24/Per-jaar-tien-Nederlanders-uitgeleverd.dhtml).

The political influence of the US does not only affect the Netherlands on a judicial level. The threat of economic consequences has led to creating The Synthetic Drugs Unit (USD) , aimed at stopping the production and export of Ecstasy in the Netherlands, according to Tim Boekhout van Solinge on the subject of zero tolerance in Release Magazine, 2006.

“To me, there is no relationship or what so ever between stricter enforcement and the quantity of drugs that is used. In the 60s it was all very difficult but everyone did it. It will never change. The government is fighting a lost battle. History teaches that,” says Gert van Veen.

Soft drugs

The recent introduction of the Wietpas has already led to many discussions, not only in the media, but also within political parties (http://www.vvdamsterdam.nl/danielvanderree/article/3354/). The Democratic Party founded in 1966 (D66) has already asked for a parliamentary debate: “Citizens [of Maastricht] are worried and are feeling abandoned by Minister Opstelten, because he doesn’t provide the promised police officers to tackle the additional nuisance his policy delivers. Mayor Hoes admitted to have had 170 reports on drug nuisance last week, but he is not willing to change the situation.” (http://www.d66.nl/d66nl/nieuws/20120508/vvd_cda_brengen_drugs_bij_u_in_de?ctx=vghpm7u9vdea)

KRO Reporter International, a Dutch television program, investigated the tightening of the existing drug policy, and has found that representatives of the police who appear regularly in the media have falsified information about the hemp production in the Netherlands (http://www.coffeeshopnieuws.nl/index.php/blog/3-articles/45-uitzending-gemist-kro-reporter-qde-nederwietoorlogq-moet-je-gezien-hebben ). They claim that the Netherlands has grown to be the biggest producer of marijuana, with exports of 500.000 kg to foreign countries yearly, what would be 80% of the total production of Dutch cannabis. These sensational numbers are based on a research by the National Police Services (KLPD). The KLPD has always refused to publicize these statistics because they considered the research ‘internal and confidential’. But the KRO obtained this document and the data shows that the estimates vary widely.“To what extent the produced cannabis is sold to coffeeshops and other outlets or is exported remains unclear.” In this research, a survey conducted by the Public Prosecutor (OM) among regional police corps states, “The biggest part of the production is destined for the domestic market.” 


Repressive policy against the growing consumption

The repressive drug policy in the Netherlands does not appear to be easing up. Maurice Punch says that even academics who have studied supporting evidence claim that already before the introduction of the zero-tolerance policy in New York, crime was diminishing. Of course, the police force did have influence, but the declining crime rate was caused by a variety of variables. Critics claimed that assertiveness (which arose from the new policy) could well change to aggression.

This reporter, who worked a couple of years for a nightclub of which he doesn’t want to mention the name for professional reasons has seen the door policy change from one moment to the next: “Last year this club had to close because of a series of incidents that had been occurring over the past years over which we always gained control. After a series of GHB incidents, however, the club got shut down for two weeks.” He suspects it to be a case of symbolic politics due to the fact that the municipality went to the media before the club could even issue a press release. After the two-week closure, the door policy of the club became much stricter. The atmosphere at the door changed and aggression occurred in the club, something that rarely had happened previously, during the weekly main events.

One of the external developments within the Dutch police force was the idea that private companies work well, in contrast to public service desks. Management tasks – based on competition and the consumers desire – were moved to the government. The results were significant, according to Maurice Punch. The police leadership was considered as taking on the task of manager and now needed to take into account efficiency, planning, budgets and goals; they were held responsible for the results. This caused a new way of thinking and acting based on the concept of corporate business, and restructuring. Governments became obsessed with figures. Basically, police force were pressured on financial and operational efficiency. On the other hand, this emphasized the importance of the critical public, whom the police now saw as ‘clients.’

According to J.C. Van der Stel in Een nieuw drugsbeleid? (1999), the data from the United Drug Control Program (UNDCP) says that the world trade in drugs is worth at least 400 billion dollars, which was 8% of the total international trade at that time (http://www.jaapvanderstel.nl/Boeken_en_rapporten_files/Nieuw%20drugsbeleid_1999.pdf). These figures are based on global production. At that time, heroine production was tripled in ten years and cocaine production was doubled.

In the Netherlands, consumption is still on the increase, according to Laura Keizer. Since 2004, there has been an increase in consumption of GHB, cocaine, Ecstasy and ketamine. “Ketamine and GHB are new, something of the last couple of years and already, there is a fair increase; the last two years have shown a strong increase. Last year, there was an increase in searching for ‘research chemicals’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Designer_drug). Over a year time, 50 new research chemicals have been introduced to the market. The stricter drug policy could have something to do with it. We see that the user is getting younger, which could be related to various things. Personally, I would say things are getting easier due to the internet.”

Statistics show that a decrease in drug consumption is not being attained, despite the national and international campaigns that are being held. Still, the repressive drug policy keeps moving its way into people’s private lives.

Gert van Veen says: “Someone who shares a pill gets kicked out [of the nightclub]. Someone who has GHB has to be delivered to the police. These are ridiculously strict rules which I strongly oppose, but there’s nothing we can do about it. It has always been said that zero tolerance pushes drug use deeper into the underground. We see it happening. Fortunately, we have it under control. Over the last four years we’ve only had one ambulance. So, it is not often used in Studio80. The search is very strict at the door, unfortunately. We have to do this. Everyone who wants to use drugs at a party goes somewhere else. But about regulating: if someone is way too drunk to stand, or is just annoying other people . . . we don’t like those people. If we need to, we show them the door. And that’s the same with drugs. I think that that’s the way people have to see it: Just for fun. I think that it should be allowed. The amount of people who get brain problems because of alcohol is way bigger than because of drugs.”

Addiction

According to Laura Keizer, 80% of the people they treat at Centrum Maliebaan are addicted to alcohol. “Sometimes it is a shared addiction. Young people don’t use one thing. But alcohol is number one. Sometimes they use it with cocaine and speed.”

The Dutch drinking culture has normalized alcohol drinking to such an extent that most Dutch children have had an alcoholic drink by the age of 12, according to a study conducted by Intomart/Gfk, and commissioned by West Frisian municipalities (http://www.nu.nl/binnenland/2471112/leeftijdsgrens-alcohol-18.html). Dutch youngsters are the heaviest drinkers in Europe. Not only does the Netherlands has a drink culture, the alcohol policy in the Netherlands is far from efficient enough to tackle this drinking problem. “Millions of Euros are gained from what is sold from alcohol. Heineken has millions invested in the government, making them include it on municipal policy. Municipalities are then free to decide on their own, but when they earn money from it, they tend to be reluctant to lose it. One of the things I would like to see is raising [the allowed age for alcohol consumption] to 18.” She also states: “Personally, I would like to see greater restrictions on alcohol commercials. I think that there should be more rules about it. What we know from research is that people interested in these commercials tend to be young people and ex-addicts.”

She says: “People are beginning to notice that things aren’t working the way they are now. Even Heineken is hedging its bets by considering becoming partners with addiction institutions, so that they appear at least outwardly, to be working on the alcohol policy and in favour of a healthy lifestyle. The media also plays a role in this.”

Although alcohol seems to be the major health issue in the Netherlands, a new trend has been spotted by various institutions.

Charles Dorpmans, prevention worker for addiction institution Novadic-Kentron, says this about GHB in an article on DJBroadcast (http://www.djbroadcast.nl/features/featureitem_id=1773/GHB_de_hype_voorbij.html ), “From history we can see that a drug quickly rises, and then stabilizes. That point has not yet been reached with GHB. GHB is already beyond the hype, it has now become a trend with a fixed spot in the entertainment setting within a wide audience.”

Laura Keizer says, “GHB is fairly new. Because of the withdrawal symptoms we have seen there it is receiving a lot of attention, and not only from the media. There is research that focuses less on brain damage but more on its effects at a social level, what it does in the party scene and when people pass out.”

During 2008 – 2009, when there was a shortage of MDMA (the active ingredient of Ecstasy), mCPP tablets came onto the market. That year, the number of GHB incidents with emergency care nearly doubled, states M. Buster in Ambulanceritten 2001-2008.

According to an article released on http://www.Psy.nl in 2009, the number of GHB addicts has more than doubled within one year time (http://www.psy.nl/meer-nieuws/nieuwsbericht/article/grote-stijging-ghb-verslaafden/). The addictiveness of the drug was surprising. Both users and experts thought that the drug was relatively harmless. It seemed more like a one-time thing, but GHB now appears to have a very addictive side effect. Addiction doctor Maarten Belgers working at Iriszorg says in that article, “After two to four weeks of daily [GHB] use, it is impossible to stop using it due to the severe and dangerous withdrawal symptoms.”

Laura Keizer says, “There has quickly been a change to make room for GHB addicts, users and intoxications. It seems that there are more problematic users, those who use during the week, at work, together with speed to use the downer and the upper at the same time. The use has increased.”

According to the article on http://www.Psy.nl, GHB addicts are usually young people in their mid-twenties.

“I think that they find themselves into trouble much sooner than with alcohol. GHB is a very different drug if you look at the effects. The withdrawal symptoms are more severe after two years of use than with alcohol, where people can use it for more than 10 or 20 years before facing difficulties,” says Laura Keizer.

Information

Gert van Veen says: “It’s a shame that everything is becoming so illegal. Too little is known about the effects and the consequences. A lot of research has stopped for years. There is still too little known about Ecstasy.”

Laura Keizer believes that providing users with information about drugs is very important.“People have to be aware of what the drugs do and they have to be aware of the choices that they make. Once you take that away – the openness to talk about drugs and alcohol – strange things might happen – people using drugs without having read or talked about it beforehand, for example.”

Although Unity Drugs can provide users with information on festivals and big indoor parties that are held a couple of times a year, their stand is not to be found in any club in the Netherlands. “I think there is a duality between the zero tolerance policy and everything that falls outside of it. It takes some time for people to get the message that there are several ways to handle this. These include raising awareness and giving information if you focus on diminishing hazardous use. Figures [by Jan Krul] show that Unity Drugs play their part in reducing this (http://www.veiligengezonduitgaan.nl/pages/Jan-Krul-.html).”

Although Studio80 does not have Unity Drugs providing personal information, it is very pro Unity Drugs, according to Gert van Veen.

He says: “At one point the CDA forbade the Ecstasy tablet test. We didn’t have that at Studio80, but major festivals had it. That tablet test was very good. At some point a very bad tablet circulated [http://binnenland.nieuws.nl/648099]. Of course, we provided information. I believe that’s our duty. We try to guide this in a good way and regulate it so that it doesn’t get out of hand. Just like we do with drunkenness. Everything else is just meddlesome.”

The rising alcohol and drug problems that the Netherlands are facing seem to encourage the authorities to continue the repressive drug policy. According to Laura Keizer, numbers and statistics are interpreted in a different way. “[The figures] are used so they can say: ‘You see! There is an increase in drug use so we have to ban it even more.’ They see it as encouraging to make the policy even more strict. I would like to see it differently.”

Portugal’s success formula

According to the bookDrug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies written by Glenn Greenwald, a nationwide law established in 2001 by Portugal took effect that decriminalized all drugs. Under the new legal framework, all drugs were ‘decriminalized’, not legalized. Drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but violating it is considered to be an administrative violation and is removed completely from the criminal realm. This is the opposite of what is happening in the Netherlands.

Decriminalization has become increasingly popular in Portugal over the last eleven years. Data has shown that decriminalization has had no harmful effect on drug usage, which is now among the lowest of Europe (http://www.cato.org/pubs/wtpapers/greenwald_whitepaper.pdf). In only ten years, drug abuse has been halved (http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5g9C6x99EnFVdFuXw_B8pvDRzLqcA?docId=CNG.e740b6d0077ba8c28f6d1dd931c6f679.5e1).

Gert van Veen says: “I think that the best party is when everyone is not sober, at least. That’s one thing that is sure and it is why so many people do their best to achieve it. It would be best if there is social control of friends and acquaintances. I see many snags in [legalizing drugs]… But it would be better in the end.” He continues to say: “The Wietpas is a step in the wrong direction. I think that the regulations have to change. People will keep taking drugs, so now the question is, how can we steer this in the right direction?” 


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