A nation’s drug policies deal with an important ethical issue and can have much influence, and Dutch drug policy, while criticized by some, is also seen as an archetype for international drug control reform by others. There is a focus on treatment and the well-being of those using drugs, and there are exceptions for and tolerances of certain aspects of cannabis use. One thing is clear: Dutch views regarding drugs are among the most liberal and progressive in the world. By contrast, in my home country of the United States, there is currently a very heated debate about drug policy. This “War on Drugs” has lasted for years, and whether or not it can actually be won, the policies it has produced are certainly much different than those in place in the Netherlands. In any country, drug problems are bound to cause an array of problems, and the way that they are approached reflects the influence of local cultural values.
In the Netherlands, drug policy is, according to the government, based on pragmatism. The official aims of Dutch drug policy are to “reduce both the demand for and the supply of drugs,” to “minimize any harm to users,” and to “maintain public order and reduce public nuisance” (“FAQ Drugs”). One central feature of the official policy is the distinction between “hard” and “soft” drugs, first laid out in the revisions made to the Opium Law in 1976 (“The elusive history of Dutch drug policy”). Categories I and II, respectively, consist of drugs that pose a significant health risk – such as cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, and amphetamines – and those that are much less dangerous – such as cannabis and some forms of mushrooms (“FAQ Drugs”). Both hard and soft drugs are illegal in the Netherlands; this refers to the production, possession, sale, and transport across national borders. It is not, however, illegal to use drugs, for the simple purpose of preventing addicts from becoming marginalized and making it easier for them to seek help. According to the official policy: “In the Netherlands, drugs are primarily regarded as a health problem” (“FAQ Drugs”).
There are some exceptions in the system of Dutch enforcement where cannabis is involved. For example, quantities deemed to be within an acceptable range for “personal use” are tolerated for possession. Another notable feature of Dutch law is that up to five cannabis plants may be grown without punishment, as a part of this “personal use” tolerance. There is also the phenomenon of “coffee shops,” which are allowed to stock up to 500 grams of cannabis at any given time, and may sell up to 5 grams per customer per day. This is allowed in order to physically emphasize the distinction between hard and soft drugs. “The aim is to keep cannabis separate from hard drugs in order to protect cannabis users, especially youngsters… who want to try it out, from exposure to hard drugs and the criminal elements who traffic in them” (“FAQ Drugs”).
The Dutch attitude toward drugs stands in sharp contrast to what is being done in the United States to control drugs. The “War on Drugs” has existed since it was declared by President Richard Nixon in 1969 (“Payan 23”), and it has been actively perpetuated by every president since. There is no distinction made between “hard” and “soft” drugs, and all illegal drugs are unlawful to produce, possess (in any quantity), acquire (by any means), sell, or transport anywhere. According to the National Drug Control Policy for 2009, the main official objectives are “stopping initiation,” “reducing drug abuse and addiction,” and “disrupting the market for illegal drugs” (“National Drug Control Strategy”). Policies regarding rehabilitation are often left up to individual states, and many of these policies outlaw practices that could be perceived as too “soft” on drug users, such as needle exchange programs, drug purity testing programs, and methadone clinics (which are not only legal in the Netherlands, but sometimes government-funded). Another difference lies in the way drug offenders are prosecuted. There are no exceptions for cannabis under U.S. law, and the penalties for possession of marijuana, while still less than those for drugs such as ecstasy, vary greatly and can be quite harsh. Again, individual states can determine their own penalties for drug offenders. For example, in my home state of Florida, possession of 20 grams or less of cannabis is regarded as a misdemeanor; the penalties for this minimum offense are up to 1 year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000 (Florida State Penalties).
My own views regarding drug policies align much more with the Dutch system than the American system. I believe that the Dutch tendency to approach problems pragmatically is embodied perfectly in the way it deals with drugs, and I think that the U.S. should be learning from the progress that has been made in the Netherlands. In my opinion, the most fundamental difference between the policies of these two nations is that the Netherlands regards drug use primarily as a health problem, while the United States regards it as a crime. This difference is manifest in every stance taken by both governments, most obviously the policies regarding arrests and incarceration. For example, although the U.S. comprises less than five percent of the world population, it houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates (Liptak). This amounts to 2.3 million criminals; of this number, nearly 500,000 are incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes (“Busted”). I believe that, in a time when U.S. prisons are overcrowded, and in a nation where freedom and truth are supposed to reign supreme, it doesn’t make sense to punish marijuana offenders more harshly than murderers. Additionally, in terms of hard drugs, I believe that the U.S. should learn from the Dutch and implement measures that aim primarily to help addicts rather than punish them.
As with any ethical issue, debate about Dutch drug policy will continue, and it is this debate that – hopefully – will ultimately produce reform and progress. Although my research into the subject has not changed my opinion, it should be noted that I have long been concerned with this issue and conducted my own personal research on it. My own attitude toward drug policy is part of my generally liberal philosophy, and I do alter it in light of developing scientific and sociological research. It is my hope that the United States, as well as every nation, will likewise base its policy on research instead of rhetoric, and I think that a good example is set by the drug policy of the Netherlands.
“Busted: America’s War on Marijuana.” PBS Frontline. Dec 1997. PBS. 7 Aug 2009.
“FAQ Drugs: A Guide to Dutch Policy.” Minstry of Foreign Affairs: Ethical Issues. June 2008. Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 7 Aug 2009.
“Florida State Penalties.” 8 Oct 2006. NORML. 7 Aug 2009.
“National Drug Control Strategy: 2009 Annual Report.” White House Drug Policy. 7 Aug 2009.
Liptak, Adam. “Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations’.” The New York Times. 23 Apr 2008. 7 Aug 2009.
Osseman, Dick. “The elusive history of Dutch drug policy: Experiments with Delphi and scenario methods.” Transdrug Project. Oct 2003. 7 Aug 2009.
Payan, Tony. “The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars.” Praeger Security International, Westport, Conn. 2006.