The failure of Dutch drug policy

According to a programme, broadcast by the Dutch Netwerk-TV on March 12, 2000 it’s obvious that there is increasing, domestic criticism of the Dutch drug policy.

This unique television programme is the first to ‘allow’ massive domestic criticism of what the advocates of a ‘tolerant’ drug policy have defined as “innovative and pragmatic.”

Having watched the programme and heard the comments by high-profile Dutch officials, the alleged success of the Dutch drug policy rather seems to be the result of uncontrolled tolerance in combination with lack of knowledge. Result: Holland’s Half-Baked Drug Experiment.

In this release, HNN gives a summary of the facts and statements from the Dutch television programme.

In the programme, it’s stated that Amsterdam, the No.1 Dutch tourist attraction, has 210 so-called coffee shops where cannabis products are freely available and 75 so-called hash-bars – establishments frequently visited by large number of drug tourists. Officials from the Netherlands are of the opinion that the country handles its drug policy in a ‘mature’ way and scientists and officials are even proud of the country’s drug policy.

Peter Cohen from the University of Amsterdam thinks that tolerance is an excellent way of handling the drug problem, even if the future development is unknown. Cohen says tolerance keeps people away from prison and also alleviates (sic!) social problems.

According to Netwerk:

  • The Netherlands is the No 1. producer of Ecstasy
  • The Netherlands has marijuana cultivations of excellent quality
  • The Netherlands is a transit country for heroin and cocaine
  • Criminals make a lot of money from the drug trade

Larry Collins, an author and investigative journalist [who wrote Holland´s Half-baked Drug Experiment, published in the May/June 1999 issue of the U.S. magazine Foreign Affairs; for your free, printed copy in English, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian and/or Russian] says in the programme that he thinks the heart of the problem is that the coffee shop policy and the soft drug policy has engendered a wider framework of tolerance and leniency towards other drugs, towards cocaine, heroin and Ecstasy. In the programme Collins points out that 80 per cent of the heroin seized in the United Kingdom in 1998 either was transited via the Netherlands or was stored there before it arrived into the United Kingdom. Similarly, 80 per cent of the heroin seized in France came via the Netherlands. The British Customs estimate that 95 per cent of the Ecstasy tablets consumed in the UK, came out of Holland. The French set that figure at 73.6 per cent. That’s why, Collins said, you are the drug capital of Western Europe.

Of course Collin’s findings didn’t please the Netherlands and the Dutch ambassador in New York expressed his displeasure by reacting in Foreign Affairs saying that Collin’s article was not meant to promote a serious debate.

In the Netwerk programme Collins said that he was told that the Dutch Foreign Ministry was just enraged and provided Dutch embassies with information saying that you must do something to stop this terrible propaganda against our enlightened drug programme.

Netwerk: The name ‘Nederweed’ is a contraction of Nederland and weed. Nederweed is produced only in Holland. In every other European country the growth of weed is forbidden. In Holland also, but here Police and justice blink facts.

Jaap de Vlieger, Head of the Rotterdam Police Drug Squad: I myself plead for: Stop that tolerance policy. It’s the strangest thing we have, because it means that the problem is unmanageable. We really should stop that policy of tolerance.

Netwerk: And this is Rob Hessing, ex-chief commissioner of the Rotterdam Police. Nowadays he is a member of the Dutch Embassy in Paris.

Hessing: Tolerance – that sounds quite plausible, but it is connected with great dangers, because in the long run you cannot survey what you tolerate. You cannot at all manage the situation.

Netwerk: 1976 – the beginning of the tolerance policy. Drug use is no longer punishable. ‘Soft’ drugs are obtainable in youth centres. The aim is to keep youngsters using ‘soft’ drugs away from ‘hard’ drugs. This policy is called the separation of markets.

T. Blom, Erasmus University, Rotterdam: The separation of the markets means that you tolerate the small scale dealing in ‘soft’ drugs whereas you try to tackle the ‘hard’ drugs market with all possible juridical means.

Netwerk: In 1976, Minister Irene Vorrink [of the Labour Party] was responsible for public health. She is the mother of Koos Zwart, in those days a notorious VARA-radio man.

Koos Zwart: There is still an enormous atmosphere of illegality. It is still a habit of several people to state that Mafiosi or Chinese people are behind the entire drug scene in Holland.

T. Blom, Erasmus University, Rotterdam: The notorious son of Irene Vorrink, Koos Zwart, in those days broadcast market reports by radio, in which he indicated the street value of any kind of cannabis of the market in Amsterdam. I cannot help having the impression that he severely influenced the views of his mother, in those days minister of public health, responsible for the drug policy.

Netwerk: The goal of Vorrink´s policy was to keep youngsters away from ‘hard’ drugs. Did it work out? Here are the figures of the Trimbos Institute, the public health advisory body. Heroin use among pupils in 1997 averaged 1 per cent. Cocaine use among pupils in 1997, 4 per cent, (second only after the U.S.). Amphetamine use among pupils in 1997: 8 per cent (third place after UK and the U.S.) and finally the popular ‘hard’ drug Ecstasy, 8 per cent (second after Ireland).

Jaap de Vlieger, Rotterdam: The figures of both cocaine and Ecstasy should make us scratch our heads.

Netwerk: The figures of the Trimbos Institute are supported by those of the European Drug Centre in Lisbon.

Netwerk: The opinion of Peter Cohen of the University of Amsterdam has for twenty years been important to the Ministry of Public Health. He all by himself makes objections against the investigation methods of the Trimbos Institute, including its figures, which he says are ideologically coloured.

Peter Cohen: These figures are, as far as people think they represent the Dutch population, misleading.

Netwerk: Cohen cannot imagine that others say the same about his criticism.

Netwerk: Just another aspect – our government is not aware of the harm of cannabis. So far the government is of the opinion that cannabis is not harmful, or hardly cause any harm to someone’s health. Why

J. Walburg, Manager of the Jellinek Clinic: So far, almost no investigations have been made about the effects of cannabis and about the consequences of increasing the active element, THC, in cannabis. We don’t know exactly what the consequences are of these new types of cannabis. There are almost no investigations in the field of the relationship between psychiatric problems and the use of cannabis, although we badly need such knowledge to understand what it means to tolerate cannabis in our society.

Netwerk: What is the reason for this lack of investigations?

J. Walburg: The problem is not experienced as a ‘problem’. You do not investigate matters that are not considered to be a problem.

Netwerk: Would you welcome such investigations?

J. Walburg: Yes, it´s absolutely needed – not only for ourselves but also for our position against other countries. That position is constantly at risk because we are so afraid and restrain reports about the consequences of the liberal approach to the law on cannabis.

Netwerk: The supporters of a more liberal drugs policy do not honour Jellinek´s wishes.

Peter Cohen: Drug experts in Holland always contradict each other. You know in advance what people from inside the drug addiction scene are going to say, i.e. there is always a lack of information and a lot of problems are still to be investigated.

Netwerk: And what about the Jellinek Clinic in that respect?

Peter Cohen: The Jellinek is of course a large balloon, floating on the atmosphere of this perception of the problem.

Netwerk: Cohen condemns everybody – Jellinek, Trimbos, Jaad de Vlieger, the police – all of them are good for nothing.

T. Blom: The 1976 tolerance drug policy was profiled as follows:

  • Free sale of ‘soft’ drugs in youth centres
  • Small-scale sale by one house dealer
  • Without pursuit of gain

Netwerk: Didn’t they think about the idea that large-scale sale would be possible?

T. Blom: I have never, in any document whatsoever, found any indication about the possibility that this might become a commercial business. They were not at all thinking about that.

Rob Hessing: And that has become a phenomenon about which we say that we always tolerated it. But in fact we began to tolerate youth centres [where ‘soft’ drugs were sold], then we tolerated the fact that criminals took over the business and became wealthy and finally we almost tolerated the implementation of organised crime.

Netwerk: Dutch police officers are of the same opinion as Rob Hessing.

Jaap de Vlieger, Rotterdam: Since 1976, the tracing and persecution of cannabis product delinquents has had a low priority. We have had different priorities – there are more dangerous things demanding our attention.

Netwerk: Such as heroin?

Jaap de Vlieger, Rotterdam: Such as heroin, cocaine etc. That’s, you see, why criminal organisations have flourished by dealing in products to which police and justice didn´t pay almost any attention.

Rob Hessing: They started to make profits and when others noticed this there were organisations thinking – That business is very profitable. They started to make it in a professional way – a youth centre becomes a coffee shop, and finally it goes beyond all bounds.

Netwerk: Ending up with the Bruinsma, ‘Hakkelaar’ and Zwolsman cases.

Rob Hessing: Exactly.

Netwerk: The criminal organisations have become very wealthy by, among other things, supplying stocks of ‘soft’ drugs to coffee shops. In fact it is forbidden. However, police and justice hardly took notice of the supply to coffee shops. The professional description of it reads: Tolerating the illegal back door of the coffee shop.

Rob Hessing: It is extremely difficult for me to explain the front door – back door policy. It causes me to perform a complex gymnastic stunt. When I arrived in Paris, I started to think about what I was going to talk about. In order to prevent myself from getting stuck, I didn’t start with explanations of our drug policy. I started to talk about safety, which consequently led to discussions about the drug problem.

Netwerk: Foreign countries do not understand that drug dealing result in relatively light punishment in Holland. And Justice knows that it is a problem.

The Public Prosecutor in the ‘Hakkelaar’ case in 1997: If our society wants to combat organised crime and the organised wholesale of drugs, and at the same time is of the opinion that the Dutch drug policy should be maintained and be acceptable to foreign countries, then something should quickly be done when it comes to the maximum punishment. Years ago, investigators indicated this.

C. Steinmetz, Investigator: At the beginning of 1995 I was asked by the Ministry of Justice to estimate how much money circulates in the ‘world of soft drugs’, in the world of hashish and marijuana.

Netwerk: What was the result of that investigation?

C. Steinmetz: It was totally embarrassing to me. It was quite clear that Dutchmen are rather dealers than smokers. The result was – About 19 billion guilders (US $8.4 billion) are circulating in the world of hashish and marijuana but only 0.8 billion (US $0.35 billion) guilders in Holland are spent on smoking it.

Netwerk: After the publication, the Ministry of Health appeared to be quite unhappy with Steinmetz’ figures.

C. Steinmetz: If I am allowed to say so, in fact nothing happened with this investigation. The Ministry of Public Health did not welcome my figures although they are responsible for the health aspects, and that’s why they so fully co-operated with the tolerance policy. That means – To guarantee that people can smoke in a kind of ‘legal’ atmosphere. However, they were not aware that they possibly were the instigators of criminal trade.

Netwerk: Is the Ministry of Public Health co-responsible for the increase of heavy criminality? General Manager P. Pennekamp, top official in the drug policy field, is opposed to that. Drugs and criminality are found everywhere, aren’t they?

Pennekamp: I think that we meet with any kind of organised crime when it comes to drugs – In Holland, a country with a tolerant policy, as well as in Sweden.

Netwerk: Klaas Bruinsma, alias ‘The Reverend’, killed 10 years ago;  Etienne U, his successor, John V., alias ‘The Stutterer’ and also ex-racer Charles Zwolsman all have one thing in common – The became wealthy from their trade in drugs. In order to get a grip on such large dealers, police about 1990 set up a special unit called IRT, allowing the import of large quantities of both ‘soft’ drugs and ‘hard’ drugs in order to check the activities of such dealers and to arrest them. However, such a scheme is not in compliance with the law.

Rob Hessing: What started in youth centres became more and more criminal. On the one hand –  tolerating drug users and maintaining the same policy for 20 years, even considering it progressive, without innovating anything. On the other hand – let the Police and Justice fight against drugs. This resulted in an enormous clash, known as the ‘IRT Affair’.

Netwerk: The Parliament investigation into the ‘IRT Affair’, led by Maarten van Traa was meant to check the infiltration techniques of the police.

Van Traa: If, for reasons of credibility, it is necessary to allow the import of hash, then I agree.

Netwerk: The police were the only ones in the dock. The government itself was absent, which was striking as it was the government, by engendering its tolerance policy, which allowed heavy criminality to expend and become wealthy. However, there was nothing about that fact in the report of the Van Traa Committee. Otto Vos, member of the Van Traa Committee for the Liberal Party tried, together with Koekkoek from the Christian Democrats to get this conclusion [about the Government’s responsibility] into the Van Traa report.

Otto Vos: The Van Traa Committee had paid attention to the relationship between the ‘soft’ drug policy and the increase of criminality in the Netherlands. It was established that because the hashish trade was left undisturbed in the 70´s and 80´s, a large amount of organised criminality arose. The minority position of Koekkoek and myself was directed at getting that clearly expressed in the Van Traa report.

Netwerk: Why was it [the comments by Koekkoek and Vos] refused?

Otto Vos: A number of members of the Committee, including Van Traa himself, were opposed to it.

Netwerk: We have called Professor Koekkoek of the Christian Democrats and he acknowledges Vos’ conclusion

Otto Vos: The conclusion that the policy of tolerance has resulted in heavy forms of criminality has been very briefly expressed in the Van Traa report.

Netwerk: It didn´t get that much attention from society. How do you explain that?

Otto Vos: The ‘soft’ drug policy has a high ideological impact in Holland. So when a direct relationship between the ‘soft’ drug policy and the rise of organised criminality is presented, it’s a very painful experience, both to establish and to admit. I think they don’t like to hear that. However, it is the reality.

Netwerk: Maybe they didn’t want to start a discussion about that?

T. Blom: It seems to be the case…that they didn’t want to discuss once again the issues framed in 1976.

C. Steinmetz: In short we may say: By means of the way in which the ‘soft’ drug policy has been framed. Holland has contributed to a situation where criminals got a fantastic chance to deal drugs.

Netwerk: Do you agree with the foreign critics in their criticism of the Dutch ‘soft’ drug policy?

C. Steinmetz: Yes, because they gradually discovered that all trails went via Holland – either direct via Holland, or via, let’s say, via Dutch organisations working abroad.

Netwerk: 25 years’ experience of policy of tolerance and Holland has not got fewer ‘hard’ rug users than countries without a policy of tolerance. We have a ‘prominent’ position in the trade of all kinds of drugs and a great attraction on drug tourists from all over the world. Yet Holland is still fond of its role as a ‘pioneer’. However, not any country takes our ‘drug experiment’ seriously.

Rob Hessing: I think that we may blame ourselves. We have for a long time advocated our ‘progressive’ policy. However, we may conclude that we came to a standstill in the 70s and 80s.

J. Walburg: Seen from an international perspective we cannot join the discussion in an authoritative way because every time people think – Your talk is charming but you produce drugs and our children go to your country to by drugs…. that kind of business. What I mean is that this causes our initiatives to get stuck. That’s why I say that we should try, when taking an initiative, to find partners in Germany, or in France, or in Belgium because we don’t need to launch all the arguments for a change of drug policy.

Netwerk: It took 25 years to openly criticise our ‘holy’ policy of tolerance – A policy that didn’t succeed in keeping youngsters away from ‘hard’ drugs – A policy that made it possible for criminal organisations to increase their wealth by billions.

It is said that ideologies have disappeared, that they no longer exist. But take a look at the discussion about the drug policy and you will certainly get the impression that facts and figures are apparently less important than ideology.

HNN-comment: The Dutch Minister of Justice, Mr. Korthals, was ‘unhappy’ with the comments made by Mr. Hessing in Paris. “He should not have expressed his comments in Netwerk-TV on Sunday…Policy has to be primarily announced by ministers.” This seems to be valid only when there is negative criticism of the Dutch drug policy. Usually the Dutch Government has nothing against their foreign diplomats advocating the ‘Dutch model’.

It is a positive sign that there is now increasing domestic criticism of the devastating Dutch drug policy.

© Hassela Nordic Network