Daily Diary

by Jenn RJ on 30 July 2010

Our lecture for Wednesday, July 28th focused on drug policy in the Netherlands.  It was interesting for me to learn more about the pragmatically based Dutch system, particularly when living somewhere like Seattle where the existing laws are coming into question.  Our lecturer, Jost (I believe this is the correct spelling, but I am not sure- his name was pronounced Yost), has a Philosophy background and is the president of a foundation promoting psychedelic research in the Netherlands; something that is not currently happening here but is being spearheaded by organizations like MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) which are mostly based out of the United States.

Jost gave us a brief overview of drug history in Amsterdam, then went into detail about coffeeshop policies, policies for personal possession, and then a bit about how the Netherlands handles hard drugs and issues of addiction.  He mentioned the Netherlands experiencing a similar experience to the United States through the 1960’s and 70’s, including a pivotal festival, much like Woodstock, in Rotterdam in 1970.  Plain-clothed officers were present at this festival and when they observed drug use but no other criminal activity, they made the decision to overlook the use and allow the festival to continue peacefully.  This was a conscious decision on the part of law enforcement, and it a larger part of the cultural pragmatism that we’ve heard other speakers mention as being a foundation of the way those in Dutch culture make decisions.  Jost also discussed what is called the “opportunity principle” which states that public prosecutors have the power to stop prosecution on a crime.  This is used in the Netherlands to allow for the prosecution of more serious crimes and minimize the cost to the public by avoiding prosecution costs in petty crimes.

The primary focus of drug policy in the Netherlands is harm reduction.  This means that drug policy is handled by the Department of Health rather than an organization like the DEA.  Within the last 20 years, laws surrounding the operation of coffee shops have been clarified, particularly after a 1994 report which cited nuisance problems and the criminal management that had started to develop within large, high volume shops.  At this time sale of alcohol and cannabis were required to be separated and the amount allowed for personal possession was reduced from 30 to 5 grams.  Shops were also then required to limit their stock on hand as well.  The latest paper on drug policy, drafted in 2009, indicates that efforts to reduce risk in this area have been successful; the country has only a 5% use rate compared to 15% in the United States.  This most recent paper focused much more heavily on the troubling rate of alcohol use among the nation’s youth- something that was found to be both increasing recently and more harmful than originally thought.

I found the grey area in which the coffeeshops are allowed to operate both interesting and a little disconcerting.  The laws seem intentionally vague in their terms and it is clear that the entire process necessary for running this type of business is not completely sanctioned.  It was interesting that the rules seems to allow for enough leeway for local government to have some choice in what type of presence coffeeshops are in their towns. While coffeeshops cannot be banned by local municipalities, decisions are made by the local mayor, prosecutor, and police about how many can exist and how regulations will be interpreted and enforced. 

I felt some sympathy for the challenge it must be for a small business owner running a coffeeshop.  I would imagine it is challenging for shop owners to exist in a heavily scrutinized and regulated, but also changeable business environment where stocking your business is in a legal grey area and there is not only operational risk, but also risk of theft and other crime.   A clear example of this is the laws surrounding “the back door” end of the business, or how coffeeshops get their supplies.  While it is legal for shops to have up to 500 grams at any one time, it is not legal to manufacture and sell cannabis products, especially in the large amounts that popular coffeshops may require.  This means that there is a legal grey area in which the police can and do choose go after large transactions, in spite of the fact that they may be intended for legally sanctioned shops.

Another very grey area is the rule around advertising.  No advertising is allowed, but how this is interpreted can vary greatly.  In past cases, being able to see a menu from the street was considered advertising, so many coffeeshops have menus upon request or a backlit box where a customer can push a button to light up the menu.  In my photography for this assignment, I was able to discreetly take a picture of an unlit menu box- you can see the “no phone” signs around it as well, which are meant to prevent you from taking a picture of the actual menu.

Jost also gave us some interesting background on how the supply process has changed over time as well.  Moves to target manufacturing created higher risk for smaller scale growers who previously contributed to coffeeshop stock.  A phone number was set up so that neighbors could report suspected growhouses and laws were changed to make it easier to evict those renters who were caught growing more than the legal limit.  This change meant higher risk for home growers and a shift to larger scale, criminal operations.  This change has meant that those producing coffeeshop stock are more focused on profits and quality has gone down.  In some cases plants have been found to have been treated with sugar water or glass particles in order to fool buyers about the quality of product.  As one can imagine, this has become a concern for public health but, because the government is not involved in manufacturing, there is currently no way to ensure quality or public saftey with things like this.

The Netherlands has also had challenges in border areas, where tourists would drive across the border to buy products illegal in their own countries.  This allowed for the development of large scale shops which have created nuisance and grown into quasi-criminal organizations; it has also created some tensions with bordering contries.

Laws surrounding the personal possession of drugs are also very different in the Netherlands than the United States.  Having under 5 grams of cannabis products is legal and under 30 grams you will only receive a small fine.  Posessing less than .5 gram of powdered substances is legal, as is possessing 4-5 hits of ecstasy, and, as mentioned before, growing under 5 plants is also allowed.  Some psychedelic products are also legal.  In 2008, after a large amount of negative press regarding problems with tourists taking psilocybin mushrooms, they were banned.  Prior to this they were widely sold in tourist shops.  While mushrooms themselves are banned, the truffles which grow underground are still legal and can be purchased from business called “smart shops.”

In reflecting on Jost’s talk, I found Greg’s posting and spent some time thinking about his question- how to handle the problem of harder drugs.  I don’t know that I have a good answer here but I do have a few thoughts.  As far as more addictive and debilitating substances, I don’t have an answer to that.  I do think the Dutch are doing something right in considering harm reduction the primary goal of policy.  It seems to me that there will always be people who, for whatever reason, are seeking the escape that harder, addictive drugs bring- this is what urban planners would call a “wicked problem.”  The attempt to solve just one piece of a complex problem like human addiction may reveal or create other problems along the same vein because of the complex nature of the problem.  Perhaps providing real addicts with a safe environment to take their drugs is a sorry solution overall, but, until we know how to better treat addiction, I think that this is better than leaving them with no help or support at all.   I also believe that the drug classification system as it exists is flawed; and to isolate more addictive drugs into their own legal category would be beneficial in protecting the public.  I would never support the decriminalization of heroin, for example, because of the high rate of addiction and the terrible effects that its use inflicts on people.  Those who produce and deal drugs like this should be criminally charged due to the harm they cause.  If drugs were handled through a health organization, as they are here in the Netherlands, perhaps we could develop a more appropriate framework of drug laws.    A system of individual assessment for each substance would also allow for some separation of things like psychedelics and methamphetamines, which carry very different risks to both the user and society as a whole.   While none of this addresses the deeper issue at hand, I do feel that we could learn a lot from this pragmatic policy of harm reduction.

Jost stressed a few points that I particularly appreciated; coffeeshops in the Netherlands are used by people of all walks of life- doctors, lawyers, and others enjoy these places, being a drug user does not make someone a criminal, a pragmatic system of harm reduction minimizes governmental cost and emphasizes personal responsibility, and a system of tolerance decreases the presence of related criminal activity and allows the government to monitor use to ensure public health.  Ultimately, the idea of a government system that focuses more on personal responsibility is appealing to me.  I am uncomfortable with the fact that I live in a place where the police chose to stop people for things like jaywalking in an empty street and ingesting relatively harmless substances like marijuana.  At Rob’s suggestion, I followed up the lecture with some related photography of some shops around Amsterdam, a few of which you can see here.

You can see the concealed menu on the right DSCN4607 Greenhouse and anonymous boys DSCN4606 DSCN4604 Wares


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