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Chapter 4.


Philosophical rationales

The 'drug problem' in The Netherlands has always been recognised as a complex social problem and as such, law enforcement and penal sanctions alone have never been seen to represent a complete solution . During the parliamentary debate on the revised Opium Act of 1976 Irene Vorrink, the Minister of Public Health, identified the following aims that form the basis of drug policy in The Netherlands:

  • the central aim is the prevention and amelioration of social and individual risks caused by the use of drugs;
  • a rational relation between those risks and policy measures;
  • a differentiation of policy measures which will also take into account the risks of legal recreational and medical drugs;
  • a priority of repressive measures against the trafficking of drugs other than cannabis; and
  • the inadequacy of the criminal law with regard to any other aspect of the drug problem ([31] Handelingen 1976, cited in Leuw 1991, p10).

The aims outlined above illustrate that The Netherlands drug policy is characterised by a number of factors. First, the criminal law was never thought to be a solution to the drug problem. Government policy with respect to 'hard' drugs is broadly based and focuses on treatment and assistance for the user and punishment for the commercial dealer ([32]Marshall et al. 1990). Secondly, it is recognised that the basis of drug policy should be to minimise harm rather than eradicate drug use, and thirdly, it is argued that drug policy should not be the same for all illicit drugs. Cannabis is seen in a different light from other drugs. Clearly there are pragmatic reasons for this separation, as the user markets for different drugs are divided and users of cannabis are, it is argued, less likely to progress to the use of 'harder' drugs.

However there is also evidence that suggests that the use of cannabis was never perceived by Dutch society to be a particularly compelling social problem. Leuw claims that: In accordance with the legal differentiation between cannabis products and hard drugs, drug policy encompassing prevention and assistance developed primarily in reaction to the emerging heroin problem. The cannabis problem - if there ever had been one seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth even before the amended Opium Act became effective ([33]Leuw 1991, p725).

The separation of cannabis from other drug problems also has had the effect of making the drug problem more manageable. [34]Van Vliet (1988) is critical of the US style of drug policy that makes no moral or legal distinction between different types of drug offences or different types of drugs and claims that 'by lumping all these different phenomena together, societies and governments help to create a problem which is unsolvable' (van Vliet 1988). Conversely, The Netherlands breaks down the 'inextricable' problem into 'manageable bits'.

In the mid-1980s, a Government-sponsored research project led to the development of the concept of 'normalisation' or 'cultural integration' which added to the sophistication of Dutch drug policy ([35]van Vliet 1990;[36] Leuw 1991). 'Normalisation' recognises that some type of drug use is natural to all human societies and argues that the eradication of all drug use is an unrealistic policy goal. The reduction of drug use and the social and individual problems associated with it are felt to be far more reasonable policy goals. Central to the concept of 'normalisation' is the idea that drug users should not be marginalised from the rest of society. In a speech to the Dutch Parliament, the State Secretary of Health stated, in 1985, that: Normalisation ... includes the cultural integration of drug users in society ... This does not mean the elimination of the drug phenomenon as a social reality: it means a change of context which clears the way for a different approach ... drug addicts should be treated neither as criminals nor as dependent patients but as 'normal' people to whom we can make 'normal' demands and who should be offered 'normal' opportunities ([37]van Vliet 1990, p727).

The implications for cannabis policy of 'normalisation' are clear. According to the Dutch, the eradication of cannabis use is an unrealistic policy goal and the creation of a 'deviant status' for drug users means that users are more likely to 'drop out' of main stream society and perhaps start using more dangerous drugs. The use of the criminal law to deal with cannabis use would marginalise cannabis users and this would be seen as unnecessarily destructive in terms of its social costs.

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