Oregon proves decriminalising hard drugs is not the answer

Cocaine seized in Rotterdam. Photo: Public Prosecution Department

What is Amsterdam’s mayor smoking? For nearly two decades, the city has fought to change its reputation as a capital of vice to a capital of nice. One of the fiercest proponents of taming Amsterdam’s wild side is mayor Femke Halsema.

But now, Halsema has gone public with a proposal to decriminalise hard drugs. The only way to fight “crime and the violence associated with the drug trade”, she says,  is “to take the drug market away from the criminals”.

At a conference on 26 January, Halsema signed and promoted a ‘health-focused manifesto’ calling for decriminalising and regulating hard drugs. She even went so far as to claim cocaine is less harmful than alcohol.

This from the mayor of a city struggling to prevent drug tourists from urinating all over the place. Can you imagine what will happen when these folks get their hands on legalised cocaine? If Halsema thinks the red light district is out of control now, she’s not going to like it when it’s full of tourists with more drugs raging through them than Hunter S. Thompson circa 1972.


For nearly half a century, the Netherlands has muddled through its convoluted policies on semi-legal marijuana, a system that has created headaches for everyone ranging from border town police officers to anyone living within 50 yards of a coffeeshop.

Have Halsema and her fellow proponents really thought this through? Has she taken a look at the problems Portugal’s own decriminalisation policies have created in recent years? Or the disastrous impact of Measure 110 on my home state of Oregon in America?

The mess in Oregon

In 2020, Oregon voters agreed to a well-intentioned but disastrous “landmark experiment” to start turning the tide on America’s failed drug policies. It became the first US state to decriminalise hard drugs and “encourage” users to go into rehab instead of face criminal penalties.

Much like what this manifesto claims, Measure 110 advocates argued it would reduce drug-related crime, help out the justice system, get addicts the help they need, and improve ‘quality of life’ in cities like my hometown of Portland.

I myself voted ‘yes’ on my absentee ballot and now deeply regret it as I’ve seen Measure 110 further exasperate Portland’s ongoing struggles with homelessness, crime, and addiction.

Three years later, the city’s demoralised police force, a hapless district attorney, befuddled officials, and haphazardly organised drug treatment facilities are battling the difficult (and costly) problems Measure 110 has helped fuel there and elsewhere around Oregon.

I was last in Oregon in May. What I witnessed would make a raucous Saturday night in Amsterdam look like a Bible study group.

Oregon currently serves as a cautionary tale for what happens when you flippantly treat hard drug use as as a mere ‘medical issue’ and conclude users won’t overdo it, addicts will voluntarily go into rehab, and organised crime gangs won’t laugh all the way to the bank and back.

My hometown is now used as a punching bag by conservative news outlets ranging from Fox News to The Telegraph in Britain. On 23 January, Oregon Democrats rolled out a proposal to recriminalise drugs in a now desperate bid to stuff this monster back in the box.

Narco state

Halsema argued the Netherlands risks becoming a ‘narco state’ in a self-penned editorial for The Guardian. It’s undeniable that the port of Rotterdam alone has become a major transit hub for traffickers. Anybody who follows the news knows she’s not wrong about that.

What she is wrong about is how best to solve what is arguably a complete quagmire. The Netherlands, much like Oregon and, well, much of the western world, has a drug problem and there are no easy answers on how to get rid of it.

Drug legalisation, no matter how carefully rolled out, could be disastrous. It essentially tells the public that hard drugs are safe.

Does Halsema really expect whoever’s managing the cocaine equivalent of a coffeeshop to take into consideration the tolerance levels and medical history of a young university student about to snort a line for the first time?

Or the costly mistake of handing a syringe full of heroin or a few cheap Oxycodone tablets to someone self-medicating because they don’t want to deal with the €385 deductible on the average Dutch insurance plan?


And who exactly will be providing the drugs? Walter White and Tony Soprano? That is basically what’s been happening with marijuana in this country for decades.

If Halsema does somehow manage to successfully lead the charge on decriminalising drugs, I hope those tasked with planning what comes next learn from the mistakes of Oregon.

Any further experiments with decriminalisation should involve an incredibly slow and steady rollout not dissimilar to ongoing efforts to legalise psychedelic mushrooms in America and study their efficacy in psilocybin therapy.

The mayor and the manifesto supporters say they are taking a pragmatic approach to the social problems caused by unfettered hard drugs use. It’s an easy argument to make. But it is the practicalities that really need addressing.

The opinions expressed in this column the writer’s own.

Thank you for donating to DutchNews.nl.

We could not provide the Dutch News service, and keep it free of charge, without the generous support of our readers. Your donations allow us to report on issues you tell us matter, and provide you with a summary of the most important Dutch news each day.

Make a donation