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UvA doctoral candidate: Tolerance not the driver of Dutch drug policy

Sija van den Beukel,
22 april 2024 - 16:59

Dutch drug policy does not stem from a tolerant ideology, but rather from measures to combat drug-related disturbances. This is what UvA historian Arjan Nuijten demonstrates in his dissertation on drug policy in Amsterdam, Arnhem, and Heerlen. “Methadone dispensing was only instituted when heroin users were found lying in doctors’ gardens at night.”

Before the turn of the century, “the Netherlands was a trailblazer” in drug policy. How did that come about?
“In the 1990s, the Netherlands was known for its tolerant drug policy. Various harm reduction measures regarding drug use were in place. One is methadone dispensing, whereby heroin users receive a substitute opiate, safe spaces to use drugs, and can exchange syringes. Streetwalking zones were also designated for addicted women and coffee shops. All these measures proved effective in reducing drug-related disturbances in cities. In the 1990s, the Netherlands “sold” that policy to foreign countries under the guise of its “tolerant” approach, hoping that other countries would follow suit and criticism of its “soft” drug policies would diminish.
How do coffee shops provide drug regulation?
“Coffee shops are allowed to sell the soft drug cannabis under the condition that no other drugs are sold. The idea is to prevent the cannabis user from coming into contact with other, hard drugs and the illegal character of the action will disappear. This idea originated as early as the late 1960s when the city government turned a blind eye to cannabis use. At youth centers such as Paradiso in Amsterdam, house dealers become active. Slowly the idea developed that cannabis is not the problem and that house dealers can serve the function of keeping other substances out. There are stories about how Paradiso’s house dealers literally kicked other dealers out the door.”

Arjan Nuijten

“So it appears that the house dealer is particularly useful in regulating the market. During the discussions on the Opium Act Review in 1976, the house dealer is even included in the regulations: The mayor, the prosecutor, and the police may allow a dealer to sell ‘hemp products’ in youth centers. From 1980 on, those guidelines were also made public, and all sorts of clever folks started stores selling hemp products, which they then supposedly sold through the home dealer: the beginning of coffee shops.”


That sounds pretty tolerant.
“The measures themselves are tolerant, but they did not arise from tolerance but rather from disturbances. Take the heroin use that emerged in the 1970s in many large Dutch cities. The police’s first reaction was to combat the nuisance caused by heroin use by arresting and driving people away. Only when heroin use became more widespread and problematic in the early 1980s and users increasingly ended up on the streets and in the criminal circuit were harm reduction measures introduced.
Doctors, associations of heroin users, and other social workers had been advocating for these measures for much longer but were only heard when the disturbances became too great. Methadone dispensing, for example, was only instituted in Arnhem in 1977 after heroin users were found lying in doctors’ gardens at night. So the decisive factor for the measures was not tolerance but a desire to reduce disturbances. Nor did this come without a fight. Local residents protested vehemently against them. So the harsh tone regarding drug policy is not entirely new.
Has anything changed about drug policy at the national level since the turn of the century?
“Very little. Dutch drug policy has virtually stood still since 1995. In that year coffee shops were recognized for the first time at the national level but the supply of cannabis remained illegal. That’s a crazy middle ground that creates a lot of ambiguity for municipalities. In the end, I think you have to be consistent and legalize all cannabis sales. Right now the municipality only has the option to refuse to allow coffee shops, but not to make them legal. Steps are being taken in that regard with the cannabis experiment (with a closed coffeeshop chain) that aims to make regulated production, distribution, and sale of cannabis possible, but the national government has not yet made any decisions.
At the same time, your dissertation shows how drug policies vary from city to city. Would it make sense to create a single national guideline?
“I think it would be good to give municipalities the option of making all cannabis sales legal. That is something many municipalities are hoping for that, as currently they are only able to refuse to allow a coffee shop.”

“The municipality of Amsterdam wants to regulate drugs not out of tolerance, but because of the increasingly problematic drug trade, especially with cocaine”

On the contrary, Mayor of Amsterdam Femke Halsema calls for the legalization of all drugs, both soft and hard. In the context of your dissertation, is it fitting that she does this from the standpoint of a municipality?
“Yes, actually it is. You can observe that the municipality of Amsterdam has more and more problems with the ever-growing drug trade, especially cocaine, and then starts fantasizing about regulation. Again, not out of tolerance for cocaine users, but to take the sting out of the problem of cocaine trafficking by organizing part of it itself. The municipality of Amsterdam is throwing its hat into the ring of its own accord. It has not been set in motion by national policy. On the contrary, the tone of national politics has become increasingly harsh towards drug use over the past two decades.”
Has the Netherlands thus lost its position as a trailblazing country? Other countries are now further along in regulating drugs.
“We haven’t lost that position per se, but the image has softened. Over the past 20 years, government cabinets have not sold drug policy as forcefully. But if you look at the number of drug user areas or the number of places where methadone is dispensed, the Netherlands is still a lot better regulated than France, for example. So the tolerant measures are still there. The danger lies in the fact that ministers are so vehemently opposed to drug dealing that harm-reduction policies will also be dismantled. Drug use does not stand still; new types of drugs are constantly coming onto the market. The question is: If you close down drug users’ rooms, will you be prepared for the new drug crises that await us?”
Is legalizing all drugs a good idea?
“That depends entirely on how you frame it. There is no panacea. You have to find a different way to deal with each drug. Drug use and drug policy never stand still but must be continually refined, a realization that sometimes seems to be lacking. Above all, we must be careful not to abolish the measures we have today under the guise of a stricter drug policy.”
Arjan Nuijten will receive his doctorate on Tuesday, April 23rd at 1:00 p.m. for his dissertation, Regulating Paradise. The Local Origins of Harm Reduction in the Netherlands. The defense will take place in Agnietenkapel and is free to attend.