Blog Post

America, Take Note: Three Lessons the Netherlands Learned After Decades of Evolving Its Drug Policy

Christopher Soda

Open Society Foundations (OSF) released a report this summer, Coffee Shops and Compromise, analyzing the history and effect of the Netherlands' drug evolution starting with a revision to the Opium Act in 1976.

As a country that’s reached an important junction of consciousness in reforming its’ drug laws, this report deserves a close look.

These are three chief lessons the Netherlands learned after decades of evolving drug policy:

  • Decriminalization doesn’t increase drug use.

Although a favored argument by those who hail the deterrent from criminalization, decriminalization fueling an increase in drug usage isn’t consistent with the results of countries that have actually decriminalized drugs. Based on a paper by Cato Institute on Portugal’s decriminalization, it was found “In almost every category of drug, and for drug usage overall, the lifetime prevalence rates in the pre-decriminalization era of the 1990s were higher than the post- decriminalization.”  It should be underscored this includes a decrease in drug use among the two critical age groups (13-15 and 16-18) of teens, an important statistic since these are the formative years for brain development and a primary concern from those who claim tolerant drug laws will equate with increased usage among young people.  It seems that more tolerant laws coupled with honest education is proving to be the way to go. Studies regarding decriminalization in the Netherlands have echoed Cato’s findings about usage not increasing.

  • You can successfully separate drug markets.

In light of a hard-drug epidemic in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, the Netherlands sought to keep young people away from heroin and cocaine.  Clear distinctions between "soft" and “hard” drugs is how the Netherlands chose to do it. By separating drug markets, they effectively severed the “gateway” potential that many loosely claim pot confers.  It seems prohibition, which lumps substances together and necessitates one buy from the black market, may be the gateway culprit rather than cannabis.   Scientists from the American Journal of Psychiatry, British Journal of Addiction, and the Institute of Medicine, to name a few, echo these phenomena with scientific studies finding no causal link between cannabis and harder drugs. Should heroin be treated as the same as cannabis or psilocybin?  Because of unfair and unscientific drug scheduling in the U.S., many are not able to think and talk intelligently about the drastic difference between these substances.

  • Commitment to public health-driven drug policy contributes to reduction of drug-related harm.

Much is to be gained by retreating from the status quo. The Netherlands gained control of their hard drug problem in a couple decades and now boast one of the lowest rates of hard drug use in the European Union because of honest education and government information, and have the healthcare system to take care of the now aging addicts. Also, the “Netherlands consistently features low prevalence of HIV among drug users, reads the Introduction to the OSF report, “cannabis use among young people on par with the European average and a citizenry that has generally been spared the burden of criminal records for low-level, non-violent drug offenses.”

The wheels of change have been set in motion in the U.S. however there is a lot of inertia still to overcome.  Doubts will persist and the same banal arguments will be voiced from those urging we continue to do more of the same.

Profits may not be an immediate benefit of a non-criminal, public health approach to drugs, but we have to ask ourselves what kind of value systems we stand by: violence, and profiting at all costs, even if it’s from sick or incarcerated people or promoting compassion, peace and safety, and the health and mental well-being of individuals? 

I know where I stand.  Do you?

Christopher Soda is an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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