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Can Dutch drug policy be an example for Britain?

Amsterdam coffee shop

budget travel accommodation under a Creative Commons Licence

Calls for cannabis legalisation echoed around the world this year, culminating in July with the New York Times changing its editorial line to advocate for reform. Uruguay became the first country to make it legal to grow, consume and sell cannabis. Laws change, but the main difficulty faced by campaigners and policymakers is to act within the UN treaties and their national legislations. To overcome those problems, some communities are organizing and bringing about change from the ground up.

The Netherlands, which was at the forefront of reform with the introduction of cannabis-selling coffee shops 40 years ago, is a key example of a grassroots movement. Pragmatic rather than ideological, Dutch drug policy allows the controlled sale of limited quantities of cannabis in such shops.

Although drug policy is a federal matter, municipalities have the power to alter policy at a local level, to prohibit the coffee shops altogether or to create stricter regulations.

Overall, the Dutch system is a success, with rates of cannabis use equivalent to or lower than those in neighbouring countries; but its weaknesses are now becoming evident. The production of cannabis is still prohibited, so supply to the shops can be problematic, which can encourage them to buy from illegal sources.

Franz Trautmann, from the Head Unit of International Affairs at the Trimbos Institute, argues that the success of the coffee shops has fuelled organized crime.

‘When they started, we had a policy of small coffee shops and it was home-grown [cannabis], available on a very small scale,’ he explains. But as the shops became more successful, they needed to bring in bigger quantities of the drugs: ‘If you have a coffee shop, you don’t want to shop around for 10 grams here, 10 grams there – you want to find one supplier. That’s simple management.’

To run their business efficiently, Trautmann argues, coffee shop owners are turning to larger-scale growers. ‘Our policy has criminalized the growers; they defend their criminal interest. It’s not a moral judgement, it’s economy.’

Today, 54 Dutch mayors are working to change to the country’s laws. They have signed a Joint Regulation Manifesto, initiated by Heerlen Mayor Paul Depla, to regulate cannabis cultivation. They argue this would help deal with the consequences of having an illegal market – including violence – and enable control over potency and availability. The wider public supports those initiatives, with 65 per cent of the population backing a regulation system similar to the one in Uruguay.

Local reforms would empower municipalities to regain control from criminals.

Depla says house fires caused by illegal, dangerous installations required to grow the cannabis plants are being reported by city authorities. There are no controls in place to establish health and safety checks. Citizens who rent out their houses are prosecuted and receive a criminal record if their tenants are caught growing cannabis.

Marith Rebel, Labour member of the Dutch Parliament, says local initiatives are necessary. ‘They’re the only way forward. There is no majority in government to change the way we’re dealing with this issue now. The only way is to experiment on the small scale.’

The aggressive law enforcement in place – Depla counts 130 illegal plantations dismantled last year in Heerlen, a town of 90,000 inhabitants – is seen as a waste of resources.

In the southern parts of the Netherlands, Trautmann explains, police use drones with infrared cameras to detect warmth in buildings – but dismantling these production units doesn’t end the problem. ‘The house owner gets arrested and suffers an economic loss,’ he says, ‘but the [growers] move their production to Belgium and run the business from the Netherlands. It doesn’t disappear – production is displaced and businesses grow on an international scale.’

Given the diversity of local needs, nationwide initiatives are not always the solution. British campaigners say it will be hard to make changes, but see encouraging signs. Jason Reed, from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) UK, says criminalization of nonviolent drug users is unnecessary and damaging. LEAP UK supports full regulatory systems and control of the drug trade by internal management.

‘With cannabis, a groundswell of support will be needed to change the intransigency of successive governments, who often do not follow evidence and who legislate based on subjectivity,’ he says. ‘Initiatives such as the Cannabis Social Club model may well serve a purpose of amelioration.’

Last year, Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, tried to exploit the localism agenda of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to decriminalize drug use in the city. Lucas wanted to implement drug consumption rooms where addicts could use heroin, crack and cocaine under supervision.

Brighton has one of Britain’s highest drug-related death rates and Lucas decided to follow a model already successful in Switzerland to reduce those numbers and ‘significantly reduce overdose death’. ‘Prohibition isn’t working,’ she said. ‘This government often says it wants to be guided by evidence, yet drugs policy is more or less an evidence-free zone.’

Although an independent drugs commission dropped the initiative for legal and budgetary reasons, it concluded the rooms would have been a major step forward. Lucas said she was pleased the idea was at least discussed and received much support.

It won’t be long until another local politician decides to take the matter into their own hands and propose local alternatives to the system. It has worked around the world, and it will in Britain, too. There’s only so long you can ignore science. As Professor Robin Room, Director of the Centre for Alcohol and Policy Research, said: ‘We’re in a system that no longer matches the science.’

That won’t be the case forever.

Charlotte Sexauer writes about human rights, social justice and drug policy and has been published by The Santiago Times, LatinCorrespondent, and Red Pepper magazine. 

 Read more about why drugs should be legalized in our September 2012 issue of New Internationalist.

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