"Dutch policies on drugs and international pressures"


Jan Van der Tas : "Thank you Chairman. I also think of course that I have to talk about that subject and I wrote down few concise points which formed a very logical ensemble. Then this morning I added other notes, and now I will found it difficult to make it sounds very coherent.
But let me try first to say why me and why the Netherlands. I am not an expert neither as in professional sense nor as a user, I am actually a former serviceman of Netherlands and in my experience as Ambassador of Netherlands in Germany I very often had to explain Netherlands drug policies to German authorities, whether burgomasters, or the President of the German Parliament, and I have met a lot of understanding and appreciation for that policy.
So, when I came back in Netherlands after my retirement and I have found that Dutch politicians were aware of that appreciation, I started to became an activist and I joined the Board of the Netherlands Drug Policy Foundation. Right from the beginning - let me say - I am a legalizer in the sense that I think that legalisation means regulation of markets by responsible governments who do not leave markets for risky products in the hands of the criminal world. I just want to say that I am not in anyway speaking - of course, as a retired - in the name of the Netherlands government, the new Netherlands government that we have. And if you find on the paper of this session before my name the title of His Excellency, it has nothing to do with my status, it has to do more with the love of all Italians for titles, especially radical Italians.
First, after this preliminary remark, I am going to speak against American drug policy, but you sure understand that this does not imply in anyway that I am anti-American. As a matter of fact, when you ask me and we discuss about Iraq, I find that I am rather near to the American point of view. Now perhaps some people will leave the room, because they don't want to hear such a guy. The Americans from the United States come as both the worst in drug policy and the best in drug policy reform. Names like Trebach come to mind, and also many other people who are in this audience today. The same as regarding to Italy as I understand, the best comes out of Italy in the form of Radical Party and the worst comes in the form of Pino Arlacchi.
That's about me, what about the Netherlands? Yes, we are seen since for about twenty-five years as the one society that has found an alternative model to American prohibitionism and, as a matter of fact, I am in a way very proud of that, although we might perhaps not deserve all the praises we very often get in the literature. What happened was that 25 years ago we had an expert report written on what to do about drugs and contrary to what most other governments do we didn't put in a drawer, but we tried to put it into practice and into policy. Then we got the Open Law '76, which has these fundamental ideas of distinguishing between drugs of various degrees of riskyness and of separating markets of soft and hard drugs and a number of other things. And it's interesting to think that all this happened in a period where the Christian-democrats were practically dominating the government. We have just got a new government and let me first speak, as I have to speak, about the Dutch experience. Our last government was not all that activist. There were several reasons. The main parties, the liberals and the social democrats, were afraid of perhaps loosing two seats in the last elections on the issues of drugs to the Christian-democrats. In the last elections they lost 50% of their votes. So that risk is no longer of any serious concern. So I expect these two parties in the near future to become extremely progressive in the drug policies. An important point was also that the Prime Minister of the day had personally no affinity with the drug issues, and you see the same thing in Tony Blair in UK and in Berlin in Gerard Schroeder. They also have an influence. So we did come under pressure and we did take a number of steps back. For instance, we have these coffee shops, which are supposed to be places where youngsters can safely acquire cannabis without getting into contact with hard drugs. And then, in order to accommodate our European neighbours, we put up the age at which you can go to a coffee shop from 16 to 18, excluding the 16 to 18 year group from the protection of the instrument that you have yourself created, which is totally absurdity. The Minister of Health of the left-wing liberals was able to promote medical marijuana, there was a heroin experiment successfully performed and we did ecstasy testing which makes the Dutch government and scientific world probably the best informed about what happens on the market of party drugs including all the dangerous hard products that every now and then appear, and this idea of testing ecstasy is exactly the one thing that new government - because you know that since few months we have a new government, which is a bit more from the right - has decided courageously to stop because it gives the wrong signal - these are, of course, their words.
Now, there was one positive thing at the end of the last government. Almost all our coffee shops had the front doors, where you can legally buy cannabis, But the guy who sells it to you, a coffee shop owner, could not obtain this merchandise at the back door, so to say, from any legal source. So we, the Netherlands Drug Policy Foundation, decided to start campaigns for the legalisation of the back door and this led to 60 burgomasters supporting our idea and then a motion in Parliament, which was one vote majority told the government to do this, and then the government said "No, we will not do this because we cannot do this because of the international treaties".
And then the man who spoke in the name of the responsible Minister who was of the Party of the responsible Minister, said "Minister ok, I will support all your argument, but then from now on, for five years, go into the international fora, and try to sell the Dutch experience and results with the different drug policies". And this has been done at a certain degree because there were conferences held in European cities and scientists, particularly on cannabis. Now the new government, we cannot judge that, the jury is still out. I understand there is the same situation in Portugal and maybe also in Germany, on the one hand it is dominated by the Christian-democrats who were the ones who invented our policies in the first place, of course while they were eight years in opposition they were obviously opposed to it, on the other hand there is the new party of the radicals left-right wing, a populist party of this so called Pim Fortuyn, and who was then murdered, which gave his party a very high percentage of the vote. Now these people, when you ask them what their position is, they always point to Heaven and say "what did Pim Fortuyn think about it" and Pim Fortuyn was very liberal on drugs. He felt it was absurd to use police resources to enforce law that couldn't be enforced. And so we could perhaps expect that from that party a certain liberal mindedness could come.
The third part in the government of the liberals, and of course liberals have to be liberal. I can't think of many reasons, but two reasons are that liberal are supposed to be for free decision of human beings of their own way of life, and second today they are a party that has a great understanding for the working of the laws of the market. So, and the last argument, our new Health Minister is an economist and of course when you are an economist you ought to understand why prohibitionism can't solve the problem.
My last argument, not too pessimistic, is that this health thing is not so much legislation, is the product of Dutch mentality of the high developed Dutch society, which is pragmatic, has a high degree of individualism, and then had led to coffee shops, to heroin distribution, which we share with our Swiss friends, soon with the Germans, I hope. So I don't see such strong menace for Dutch policies from within but we are under pressure, this is also about pressure, the pressure is real and constant, it is partly self imposed or used as a pretext, it leads to a bad level of debating of the issue if debate takes place at all. The pressures come 1) of course, from the United States, 2) from the UN treaties, 3) from European Union regulations, and 4) more generally speaking, from abroad. There are many people who are interviewed and who have no other argument even when they are very high in the hierarchy of the State. They say "Our neighbours abroad wouldn't understand" and that makes our role as drug policy reformers not as easy as you might think it is. Fortunately, when the pressure is settled it is very dangerous, and the advantage is that many drug warriors are not very subtle people. And so often the argument is expounded rather aggressively, like it was when Chirac and Khol told us, 5 years ago, that they had decided to come to Holland to settle the drug policy issue. And, of course, when the drug czar McCarthy came to Holland. Before he made the study visit he gave an interview to CNN, telling then that in Holland murdering was three time as high as in United States. Now, if you lie, lie cleverly. Yet, the American authorities are still using these statistics in their way. This leads me to the conclusion that the moment has come to Netherlands need some support from other countries. There is always Switzerland you can trust and I want to salute them, but I'm not quite as optimistic as Madame Brykman seems to be that in Europe automatically we will get to better sort of policies than the United States have. Of course there are the Netherlands, Canada, parliamentary reports very important, Australia, although they have a very prohibitionist Prime Minister, the UK, very important developments police force has come out and has taken initiatives for reports, the House of Commons special Committee on drugs has actually advised the government to go to Vienna and put the issue of legalisation on the table. That's quite an important thing and it shouldn't be forgotten. Also I think that we might hope that the Greens in Germany, who have a slightly more comfortable electoral position at the moment, can do a sort of slap on the shoulders and tell "boys now show that you are indeed the party that can change certain things". What in the meantime do we have to do? I think we have to continue a systematic debate against the policies of prohibitionism. The fundamental flaws of prohibition have been well illustrated this morning by Trebach and Pannella, but I think we should point out at the fact that prohibition is against the laws of economics, it is against human rights, its results are lousy and produce a collateral damage that is both morally and politically unacceptable. We should also I think always have a debate both on the matters of principles and on the practical steps. We should not avoid the debate on principles for practical reasons and should not despite these small steps in order to reach a more important goal. And most of all I think we should do no fight with ourselves on a question like whether yes or not speak out of legalisation or whether yes or not we should accept liberalisation of cannabis first. I think we should concentrate on the issues like the link between the war against terrorism and drugs. There is a link, of course, making drugs illegal, creating an enormous premium and creating enormous resources that then can be used for all sources of criminal pursuits, terrorism not excluded. We have to be aware of what Mrs Brykman just slightly denounced that Justice and Interior Ministers of the European Union are now discussing of minimum sentencing in drug cases. Minimum sentencing
But it is possible in the Parliaments of the various Member States to ask questions, and if yesterday Dutch Minister, who agrees with this development, was all the same obliged once again to put up the veto, it is because it first has to talk to his committee of the Dutch parliament, and I would hope that it also occurs in other capitals of Member States. We have to certainly concentrate on the Committee on Drugs Meeting in April 2003, and that is what your conference is about, we have to be aware that the distribution of hard drugs should be regulated, that cannabis should be liberalised, and most of all that the argument for legalisation is even more pressing for the more risky drugs than for the less risky drugs.
Now, in order to conclude, I don't want to give you any conclusions but I've written down few debating points that you might perhaps want to pick up.
First of all, point 1, prohibition does not work and it had no worked for economic reasons, and it has immense collateral damages which are politically and morally unacceptable; 2) legalisation means the governments doing their job, that is protecting the citizens from avoidable risks, by regulating market of not totally innocuous products, and not leaving the regulation of the market to the criminal scene. 3) the UN treaties and the UN agencies dealing with drugs, and the cultures in these agencies, are totally out of step with development in society and science. I mean, the UN agency where is forbidden to talk about drug use and where you are obliged, every time you want to use that word to speak of drug abuse is really on the verge of becoming paranoid. And I think they may well have stepped over the border. I would say to this people who have this mission to do law enforcement on the drug's problem what was said to this American candidate for the Presidency in some meeting: somebody held up a sign which said "is the economy stupid?". So the drug's phenomena answer not to law enforcement but to rules of the economy of market when things are illegal, etc. But also for instance in the Netherlands and UK, we have the huge problem of people from poor countries flying in with bolitas of cocaine in their stomach. In Amsterdam, there are 450 of these people per week coming mainly from the Dutch Antilles. These people do that because in those areas there are no other ways to gain one's living. So I ask again : "is the economy stupid?"
The European Union has almost no drug policy of its own. In all the external contacts, whether is with developing countries or with poorest countries that want commercial treaties, or accession countries, it makes sure that these countries are obliged to fully conform to the prohibitionist philosophy of the UN treaties. Now, when well organised and rich and developed countries like the United States and the Netherlands can barely afford be totally compromise by the force of the illegal markets, how do you think countries that have weak economies, for the time being, weak social structures, and bad governments in some part will ever be able to defend themselves against the menace of the Mafia.
Another dilemma is the poor countries that are now producer countries of certain drugs. We were asked the other day in a conference "what will happen if these were legalised, what will happen to our products?"
We know that alternative development is a nonsense. You can't say "Go and grow bananas", because there will be always a man in dark glasses who will say "come with me in the next valley and I'll pay you three times what you get from bananas if you do cocaine again".
One of my nasty friends told to Colombian people "well of course these productions will go to countries like Australia, where businessmen feel they are in a safer society or to places like Holland, where they can do anything under glass that you can do under the sun. So we will have to give an answer to these countries. I do not think that is an argument to maintain prohibitionism. What we need, I think, is the European alternative to the American model of drug policy, which cannot work and doesn't work. The problem is if we let the European Union develop its own formula of drug policy too fast or too soon we might get a rather retrograde model. So we have to let it think a bit longer, we will have to let developments on the work floor in Europe and in the local communities have a bit more time, and hope that our politicians will see the light of day sooner rather than later. I do want to say you one French word and I do consider this as an issue which the French will see and an issue of le rayonnement de la culture européenne.
Thank you very much".

S.E. Jan Van der Tas, former dutch Ambassador in Germany

(Text not revised by the author)