The next bi-annual ADHS conference is hosted in Utrecht, The Netherlands from June 22 to June 25, 2017, and drug use and drug policy make the Dutch news often. Headlines of recent years include the taking of party drugs at dance events, underage drinking, the deaths of tourists in Amsterdam due to white heroin, and the introduction of the weed pass. What was the role of Dutch drug policy in these cases? What other issues emerge from the implementation of the policy? Although policy decisions are usually pragmatic, they can lead to unexpected and often contradictory messages…
“You can’t use them, but here’s how you use them”
The complex reality of drug control is evident at the many popular dance festivals in the country. Major events such as the multi-day Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE) attract many Dutch and international visitors. Although these events officially enforce a zero tolerance drug policy, which is stressed in the promotion material, it is commonly known that consumption of ‘party drugs’ (e.g. ecstasy and 4FA) plays an important role for the visitors of many of these dance festivals. Dutch drug control is known for its ‘tweesporenbeleid’ or dual track policy. This means that drug trade is actively suppressed, whereas drug use usually is not: instead, drug users are often informed about safe drug use in order to minimize harm.
At the entrance of parties, before the security checks, we can see the Dutch dual track policy at work. There is a box wherein visitors can throw away any drugs they might carry, along with a warning that this is the last chance to dispose of drugs without any further consequences. In the same space, posters with guidelines for safe drug use (e.g. “drink no more than 1 or 2 glasses of water each hour”, “do not hesitate to ask for professional help if you feel unwell”) are up on the walls. The message seems contradictory, but it in fact encapsulates the dual track policy: drug trade is illegal and the use of drugs is not endorsed, but those deciding to use them anyway are provided with information to minimize the harm of drug use. Although it does not present a uniform “no” to the event’s visitors, it does succeed at communicating that drugs are illegal and that use is not without risk.
“I know you look older than 18 but I need to ask for your ID anyway!”
We can see some fascinating contradictory effects of recent changes in alcohol policy too. In 2014 the age limit for the sale of alcohol was raised from 16 to 18. Outlets for alcohol, which include liquor stores, super markets, cafes and sports cantinas are bound by strict rules. They have to ask the ID of anyone appearing to be younger than 25. People older than 18 often find this annoying, as they are legally allowed to buy alcohol. Although a national campaign tried to encourage people in this age category to show their ID voluntarily, in practice it falls on the cashier to ask and estimate the age of the person buying alcohol.
This is stressful for often young cashiers, who are confronted with intimidating customers unwilling to present their IDs. Over the past years supermarkets have taken multiple steps to prevent cashiers from selling alcohol to people younger than 18. For example, they give them special training, and they make use of so-called ‘mystery-shoppers’, underage teenagers who try to buy alcohol at the store. These measures have helped, but to further prevent those younger than 18 from buying alcohol some supermarkets now use ID-scanners to swipe drivers licenses, passports or identity cards to establish age, a practice that is in violation of the national privacy act.
While the pressure on supermarkets and clubs to uphold these alcohol distribution rules is increasing, the government is at the same time considering expanding the outlets where alcohol can be sold. Over the past year multiple cities have experimented with additional outlets for alcohol sale, for instance at barber shops and bookstores. The major governmental party, VVD, has stated: “A glass of wine at the barber shouldn’t be an issue.” What we see then is that alcohol sale in supermarkets became subject to increasing regulation, while simultaneously initiatives to make alcohol sale possible in non-specialist outlets such as barber shops are set up.
One of the reasons for expanding the alcohol outlets is to draw people to the stores in the cities, which are suffering from competition with online stores. Cafes and liquor stores are against these measures. They fear a rise in cafes that pass themselves off as shops to avoid the strict hygiene demands the cafes have to commit to, such as having a bathroom and a hygienic bar. In practice, changes in alcohol regulation have effects that reach far and have unexpected effects in their compliance.
“You will not be arrested for using drugs”
In late 2014, the drug-related deaths of three tourists in the Dutch capital and the city’s response were covered extensively in national and international press, for instance in The Washington Post. The tourists thought they bought cocaine from a bike riding street dealer, but had instead purchased the much more potent and, interestingly, more valuable white heroin. The city council responded by putting up posters and matrix signs all over the city, warning tourists of the dangers and risks associated with white heroin. The displayed messages warned visitors that white heroin was being sold as cocaine. In addition, the city council let tourists know that they would not be arrested for drug use.
This message is a clear harm reduction measure, the health services for drug users need to be as approachable as possible and fear of prosecution can’t get in the way of that. The images reaffirmed Amsterdam’s racy international reputation as a choice destination for hedonist indulgences that include sex tourism and soft drug consumption. Although the capital’s drug policy is in no way aimed at upholding this reputation, the signs’ speedy spread across media did achieve another aim of the policy: to minimize harm for the users. The pragmatic response focused on creating awareness rather than seeking to repress drug use, as is the city’s overall attitude towards drugs.
The underlying assumption is that users will use drugs regardless of whether this is allowed or not, and that it is therefore more effective to minimize harm by means of raising awareness and facilitating help. The message that cocaine may not be cocaine but a more potent drug served not to underline leniency toward cocaine use but to protect cocaine users. The media’s eagerness to pick up the story and publish pictures of the matrix signs must have played a role in raising awareness of the risks. Moreover, the awareness posters emphasized that it is safe to ask for help in case of drug related health effects, along with the explicit mention that use of drugs does not lead to prosecution in The Netherlands.
“It doesn’t work like that in the big city”
In the Netherlands since the seventies the sale of marijuana via the famous ´coffeeshops´ is tolerated. Recently there have been changes in coffeeshop regulation: the four major cities in the Netherlands, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam and The Hague incorporated the ‘afstandscriterium’, which meant that coffeeshops had to close if they were within short distance of schools. In the center of Amsterdam alone, we’re talking about closing 26 coffeeshops . Among these are Mellow Yellow and The Bulldog, coffeeshops that have been there since the beginning of the Dutch tolerance policy.
While the city of Amsterdam poses the closing of these coffeeshops as part of a project to clean up the city center, an underlying reason is a deal with the national government to exempt Amsterdam from introducing the “weed pass.” The weed pass would ban the sale of cannabis to foreigners. Amsterdam heavily protested this regulation, fearing large amounts of tourists drawn to Amsterdam would cause problems by smoking on the street and an increase in street dealing of marijuana. The national policy did not work well for the specific local level of Amsterdam. Utrecht, on the other hand, objected to the weed pass for the opposite reason, saying that the use of cannabis by tourists presented only a small amount of the cannabis users and that the national policy would do more harm than good.
This interplay between the local and the national is an important characteristic of Dutch marijuana regulation. While the tolerance of coffeeshops is often attributed to national drug policy changes in 1976, we find the first tolerated sale of cannabis several years earlier, influenced by local rulings in Amsterdam. Paradiso, today still a popular Amsterdam concert venue, was one of the first youth centers to allow in-house dealers to sell cannabis to their customers. Banning the centers was seen as promoting the spread of problem use.
Reminiscent of the situation in the seventies, it appears that the cities are again pushing for changes in cannabis distribution due to the at times unwanted effects of the national policies. While Amsterdam has been exempted from the national weed pass, the nationally forced closing of its coffeeshops has up to now caused large crowds in the coffeeshops that remained open. Mayor Eberhard van der Laan has already said that pending a more liberal government he will consider opening 8 to 10 new coffeeshops. Similar voices are being heard from the city that will host the next ADHS conference, Utrecht. Utrecht currently has 10 coffeeshops and the city government is open to expanding the number of shops to its maximum of 17.
So, these are just a few of the current issues of intoxicant regulation in the context of The Netherlands. Issues such as these from all over the world will be contextualized with academic rigor at the next ADHS conference in Utrecht in June. The conference promises to cover a wide array of issues, intoxicants, perspectives, approaches and methods. Check out the website here!