Dutch Courage, Drug Policy in the Modern Age~

CC Summer 1995: Dutch Courage

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Dutch drug policy has its roots in tolerance and is
evolving into an organized and regulated system.

by Sander de Jong

In the early seventies the Dutch government decided to make a distinction
between the so-called soft and hard drugs, and so they added an A and a B
list to the somewhat outdated Opium Law. The categories have never been
very clearly delineated, but marijuana has always been on the B list. This
was a legal construction which was only the beginning of a body of law that
has grown increasingly more complex, (even to the point of
self-contradiction), but which has nevertheless provided considerable
freedom to Dutch nationals. This freedom has always been very dependent
upon a police force that is not so much tolerant, but rather pragmatically
absent when it comes to interfering with the general public.

This first move predominantly entailed decriminalizing the use of
drugs. The Dutch opted for a more medical approach, in practice allowing
people to possess small quantities without having to fear prosecution. The
precise quantities were only set in the early eighties, when the Dutch
government also started to regulate the retail of marijuana and hashish, an
area which had always remained grey. When the police stopped prosecuting
home-dealers in the early seventies, they did not expect that many of them
would redecorate their living rooms into actual shops, let alone that there
would be over a thousand of them within a mere twenty years.

The policy was that, as long as you didn’t have more on you than
approximately one American ounce and you could convincingly prove that it
was only for your personal use, no legal action would be taken against you,
although at first you still stood a good chance of losing your stash to
some paternalistic cop. Of course, this made small-scale dealing in
marijuana quite uncontrollable, but as it was predominantly the drug of the
alternative youth, hippie, and artist’s subculture in those years, the
police let it go.

In the eighties, a new generation got acquainted with a drug that was quite
readily available, yet still surrounded with the slight haze of mystery and
illegality. Not that everybody suddenly started to use it, but the
officials got a little bit nervous nevertheless. Recently, after more than
fifteen years of legal insecurity, they produced a policy, known as the
AHOJ‘ policy. It entails that Alcohol
cannot be served in a softshop, the use and selling of Harddrugs are forbidden, public Order must be maintained, and finally that no youths
under sixteen are allowed into a softshop (the ‘J‘ is for ‘Jeugd‘, the dutch word for
youth). At first sight this seems reasonable and clear, but alas it is not

Because the government policy has to be implemented locally, different
interpretations of the AHOJ policy can pop up. The point about public order
is something which can be twisted so that a conservative city council, (and
there are quite a lot of them, especially in the more rural areas), can
severely restrict the existence and the mode of operation of softshops
within its boundaries. Foreigners generally do not witness this because all
they see are the big cities whose city councils have greater priorities
than coming down hard on pot smokers.

Nevertheless, Holland is a small country with an excellent infrastructure,
down to dope delivery services and all, so anybody who wants to smoke
generally can. So where does the pot come from, and how does the law
provide for the retailers, the growers, the importers, and the distributors
of a plant that may be legally enjoyed? Well, apart from the fact that one
is allowed to grow a few plants for personal use, it doesn’t.

The retailers pay taxes in an odd way so that the tax service can avoid
getting involved with criminal activities. They are taxed for the legal
business they do, and they get a fine that stands in a linear relation with
this legal turnover to pay for the marijuana they sell. As long as they pay
these pseudo-taxes and abide with the AHOJ policy they will generally be
left in peace. Unless, of course, some policeman or other government
official has a personal grudge against a retailer.

In such a case a marijuana retailer may be pestered quite strongly, as
officially the police can close him down quite easily. They just don’t
because they generally have other priorities, and because the present
situation gives them quite a lot of grip on the retailers. I even know of a
few cases of extortion from my own indirect experience, so it is bound to
happen more often. They wouldn’t want the circuit to go underground,
however, as it would then be much harder to control and separate from the
trade in hard drugs.

It seems to me that many police officers prefer to deal with stoned,
non-aggressive soccer fans, rather than loudmouthed, aggressive drunken
ones. In Holland smoking pot is considered no more abnormal than drinking
alcohol, and this is more especially so in the case of people under forty,
as there are almost as many drinkers as smokers in this age group.

Growing has also become quite popular, but generally only for oneself and
relatives. Some have attempted it on a much larger scale so as to draw the
attention of the wicked, wicked legislator, who in his supreme wisdom has
decided that we are only allowed five plants each (not six, not four, but
five). Still, the growers are well off compared to the importers and the
distributors, because within this hybrid system they take all the risk, all
the blame, and, of course, most of the cash if they do make it. They
generally do succeed, which is not surprising if you consider the crazy
fact that the government is actually helping them to get get rid of their
black money with a system in which there is a legal market and a large grey
circuit to provide that market.

What we are left with is a contradictory system of government. On the one
hand, many smokers happily smoke their over-taxed joint, as the retailers
are not allowed to subtract illegal investments from their turnover. On the
other hand, other parts of that same system spend large funds trying to
catch those who provided the stuff. Kind of silly, don’t you think?

Well, there’s a number of reasons why it’s not as easy as that. First,
there is the problem that drug trafficking is generally an international
affair. The Netherlands have long been the only country in the world with
such a pseudo-liberal drug policy, and the government has always felt that
allowing importers to do their business could severely upset the countries
of origin. However, I find this to be a weak argument, because those
countries generally don’t care, could use the money, and what we call
“drugs” is usually part of thousands of years of tradition and culture back
where it comes from, at least in its unrefined form.

It is the western countries that have always been most upset by Dutch drug
policies, and although some of them stand the risk of receiving forbidden
drugs through Dutch distributors, time has proven the Dutch at least partly
right in their approach, if only because some of our critics have actually
taken over our measures.

Does this mean that there are no problems with drugs in the Netherlands?
No, it does not, though this is mainly because our policy is very much a
halfway measure, with all its accompanying problems. But what does the
future hold?

The future is something which can not be frozen into existence. The
motivating factors nowadays are economics and sustaining an acceptable
level of public order, including a minimalisation of the medical
consequences of drug use. Complicating factors are the emergence of new
subcultures, such as the house scene, which has very much changed attitudes
towards drug use. The introduction of “ecstasy” and related party drugs has
normalized marijuana considerably, and I believe that a sociological shift
in the use of drugs can be clearly detected.

This can be clearly seen in a recent Dutch high court ruling that ‘qat’, a
mild drug from an area covering Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen, could not be
put on either the A or the B list of the Dutch Opium Law. The court ruled
that, because it was an unprocessed plant and an integral part of a
traditional culture (in which it was just as accepted as alcohol is in our
society,) it could not be prohibited. The funny thing is that, based on
this verdict, many other formerly illegal drugs became pseudo-legal, such
as mushrooms, and peyote, and this will no doubt have its influence on
Dutch society and politics as well.


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