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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 3 - Public Policy Options

Chapter 20 - Public Policy In Other Countries - The Netherlands

The Netherlands[1][53]


Much has been said about the Dutch approach to the drug issue. The following is one example:


In Holland, studies conducted in the early 1990s show the negative impact of tolerance of illegal drugs:

·        the number of "coffe shops" that have derived income from the sale of hashish since decriminalization in 1990 rose from 20 to 400 in Amsterdam in 1991 to more than 2,000 throughout all of Holland;

·        from 1984 to 1988, the number of hashish smokers 15 years of age or more doubled in Holland; from 1988 to 1992, the number of smokers 14 to 17 years of age doubled again, and the number of users 12 and 13 years old tripled;

·        the rate of violent crimes committed in Holland is the highest in Europe and is still rising. [2][54]


In the Netherlands (you have to be careful because there are enormous social and cultural differences preventing any general comparison between Canada and that country), the harm-reduction-based drug policy draws a very clear distinction between cannabis and so‑called hard drugs. Since the policy was adopted, cannabis has appeared to be less dangerous and its social approval has increased, particularly among young people whose cannabis use has quadrupled. Cannabis use in that country, as in most continental European countries, based on the statistics cited, remains below that of Canada. But that simply means that we must be even more vigilant. The tendency to have a problem situation and the probability that it will occur appear higher in the country. [3][55]


Various witnesses cited the article by Larry Collins published in the prestigious Foreign Affairs. However, that article is full of errors of fact.

In view of the climate surrounding the drug policy debate, it is difficult to describe the Dutch approach without giving the impression that one is taking a position. First, we should recall a number of observations we made in Chapter 6, to which we will return in the comparative analysis in the next chapter. First of all, international comparison of use trends must be carefully drawn because of the different methodologies used in the surveys. Second, international comparisons tend to show that "the relationship between the figures measuring cannabis use levels and the legislative model in effect in a country is not obvious or systematic."[4][56]

As was the case for France, we begin with a brief overview of drug legislation in the Netherlands, then describe the broad outlines of the current Dutch policy and the tools used to implement it. We then present current legislation in a more detailed manner and the reports on which it is based, then, lastly, provide some figures on drug use and repression.


Dutch pragmatism?

Like the other colonial powers, the Netherlands maintained opium production authorities and trading posts in their colonies, a system that generated significant tax revenues: between 1816 and 1915, net profits from the sale of opium represented approximately 10 per cent of total revenue from the colonies for the Dutch treasury. The country was also the largest producer of cocaine for medical purposes. It was not until the end of World War II and the independence of Indonesia that the Netherlands terminated the opium monopoly.


Vested economic interests in the production and trade of drugs may explain the Dutch reluctance to endorse strong international drug control. Clearly, the Netherlands attempted to protect these interests at the conferences and did so successfully, at least temporarily. (…) Incidentally, the Netherlands also objected to the inclusion of marihuana in the convention. [5][57]


During the 1920s and 1930s, the country came under criticism from the League of Nations and the United States in particular over its extensive drug trade. The Netherlands was one of the main heroin producers and the principal producer of cocaine. However, the Dutch negotiators at the international conferences on the various conventions, as well as a portion of the Dutch population itself, did not believe in a system based on prohibition and, already at the turn of the century, felt that a system of government control would be more effective.

It was this attitude that led a number of analysts to represent the Dutch approach to drugs as pragmatic.


Dutch society is a pragmatic society. It is a nation of traders, going back to the XVIIth century. Traders are more pragmatic than other people. The pragmatism finds its roots in Dutch history, which is characterized by its fight against the sea, the natural enemy of the Netherlands since the Middle Ages. The Netherlands is roughly the size of Vancouver Island, and today one-half of the country is at sea level.

A system of dykes was built to protect the country. Centuries ago, everyone in Dutch society, from the aristocracy to the farmers worked together to prevent seawater from flowing into the country. The pragmatic attitude comes from that. It is impossible to completely eliminate the problem of the water. It is better to control it with canals. [6][58]


However, other factors beyond pragmatism are at work. One Dutch government publication suggests that the nature of Dutch society is the reason for its approach:


Some knowledge of the characteristics of Dutch society is required to appreciate the Dutch approach to the drug problem. The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated urbanized countries in the world. Its population of 15.5 million inhabitants occupies an area of 41,526 square kilometers. The Netherlands has always been a transit country: Rotterdam is the largest seaport in the world and the country has a highly developed transportation sector. The Dutch firmly believe in individual freedom and expect the state to be reserved in its approach to religious and moral questions. Free and open debate on such questions is one of the characteristics of Dutch society. Considerable value is attached to the well-being of society as a whole, as may be seen from the extensive social security system and universal access to health care and education. [7][59]


It follows that, by tradition, the Dutch are not accustomed to using criminal law to address social problems.[8][60] Furthermore, the Netherlands is a country of consensus, where there is a long tradition of cooperation between local, regional and national authorities, and between the various sectors of the government.

Whatever the reasons, the Dutch experience has received considerable media coverage, surprisingly, much more than the Spanish approach, which, in many respects, is even more liberal. Being called upon to defend it in Europe and in other international forums, the Dutch have often presented it as a position of compromise between that of the "hawks" of the war on drugs and that of the "doves" of legalisation.[9][61] It is unlikely that the approach is the result of specific cultural factors and that the Dutch experience cannot apply to other countries. On the contrary, it appears to be the rational solution to a problem by politicians, and that cannot be claimed to be an exclusively Dutch characteristic.


[1][53]  This section draws largely on the research report prepared for the Committee by the Library of Parliament: B. Dolin, (2001) National Drug Policy: The Netherlands. Ottawa: Library of Parliament, prepared for the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs; available online at www.parl.gc.ca/illegaldrugs.asp.

[2][54]  Canadian Police Association, Brief to the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, May 28, 2001.

[3][55]  Brief of Dr. Colin Mangham, Consequences of the Liberalization of Cannabis Drug Policy, September 17, 2001.

[4][56]  H. Martineau and É. Gomart, Politiques et expérimentations sur les drogues aux Pays‑Bas. Rapport de synthèse. Paris: OFDT, 2000, page 44.

[5][57]  M. De Kort, "A Short History of Drugs in the Netherlands", in E Leuw and I. Haen Marshall, eds., Between prohibition and legalization. The Dutch experiment in drug policy. Amsterdam: Kugler, 1994, page 11.

[6][58]  Tim Boekhout van Solinge, testimony before the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, Senate of Canada, first session of the thirty-seventh Parliament, 19 November 2001, Issue 11, page 53‑54.

[7][59]  "Drug Policy in the Netherlands", Government of the Netherlands, available online at: http://www.netherlands‑embassy.org/c_hltdru.html.

[8][60]  Boekhout van Solinge, "La Politique de drogue aux Pays‑Bas: un essai de changement", Déviance et Société, Vol. 22, page 69‑71.

[9][61]  C.D. Kaplan et al., "Is Dutch Drug Policy an Example to the World?" in Leuw and Marshall, eds., op. cit.

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