When the Dutch government liberalised cannabis policy in 1976, they understood that the legalisation and regulation of cannabis was actually the best solution, or at least the least bad one.
They also knew that legalisation would be highly controversial internationally. Fifteen years earlier, in 1961, the international community, with the US at the forefront decided, on rather questionable grounds, that a number of drugs should be banned.
Consequently the Netherlands took a half measure, decriminalising the possession and use, and even eventually the purchase, of cannabis via coffee shops, but continued to prohibit cultivation and production, in the perhaps short-sighted belief that the rest of the world would soon understand that regulation was indeed the least bad solution.
However, as Ronald Reagan assumed office, the war on drugs was given new life. Four decades later the failures of this approach are clear. According to the United Nations World Drug Report, there have never been so many cannabis, cocaine, heroin and synthetic drugs on the market for such low prices or of higher purity as there are today.
Meanwhile it appears that the Dutch were ahead of their time. Uruguay and Canada have legally regulated cannabis, as have 11 states in the US. More than 20% of Americans can legally buy weed, making the federal ban ever less tenable.
In Europe, Luxembourg and Malta have announced their intention to regulate cannabis. Following in the footsteps of Dutch municipalities, several cities in Germany, Spain, Denmark and Switzerland want to move towards a regulated cannabis market.
Forty years ago, the Netherlands was far ahead of its time. But today we see the country moving backwards, as evidenced by a recent report on the drugs culture in Amsterdam. Professor Pieter Tops and journalist Jan Tromp, the authors of the report, believe that Dutch society is ‘undermined’ by organised drugs crime, though it’s hard to say what the evidence is to support these conclusions.
A new ‘hard approach’ – rather similar to the old approach elsewhere in the world – with more police powers must be deployed, in addition to stigmatising users, the report’s authors argued.
But, that will lead to a huge hangover in a few years’ time. A parliamentary committee will conclude in 2025 that the approach has failed. It is naïve to assume that by constantly repeating failed policies they will succeed this time. That is, unless a different approach is chosen in the meantime.
Critics from the ‘loony’ right consider legally regulating recreational drugs to be utopian or naive, even as they wilfully and naively persist in ignoring the lessons of very recent history.
For example, the war on drugs approach demands that shipments of illegal drugs should be intercepted and seized. How is that going so far? It has failed,and drugs continue to arrive unhindered at their distribution points.
The war on drugs demands that the people making money from drugs should be brought under control. What progress there? Another failure. Most still walk free according to the police and the judiciary.
Then the illegal money flows had to be tackled. Thirty years after the foundation of an international task force, it turns out not much has happened. ‘Professional money launderers (…) are running billions of illegal drug and other criminal profits through the banking system with a 99% success rate’, the boss of Europol, Rob Wainwright, observed at his departure in 2018.
‘The banks are spending $20 billion a year to run the compliance regime… and we are seizing 1% of the criminal assets every year in Europe.’
The recommendations in the Amsterdam report will be as ineffective this time as they have been so far and, if implemented, will do little to dismantle the drugs market.
This is not to say that tackling illicit financial flows is pointless, if only to combat crime of every sort. Monitoring the real estate market, for instance, as Tops and Tromp propose in their report, may have merits.
Other proposals, however, are absurd, such as the introduction of the residence criterion, which would prohibit coffee shops in Amsterdam from selling to tourists, gifting a ready and thriving industry to the black market.
Tops, following discussions with Canadian police, mentions that there are ‘as yet no indications’ that the legal regulation of cannabis in Canada has taken the wind out of the sails of the criminals.
Canada’s cannabis regulations are less than a year old, but Tops has already reached his conclusions. Indeed, there is still an illegal market, but 60% have now switched to the legal market, mainly because legal weed is in short supply and is often of inferior quality. It is simply too early to draw any conclusions.
A more thorough analysis of the effects of the introduction of regulated cannabis in Canada, not just on the basis of discussions with the police, could provide useful information for regulating cannabis in the Netherlands. Hopefully this research will not be outsourced to Pieter Tops.
The supply and demand that drives the market for drugs cannot be dismantled by tackling the supply side or by stigmatising demand history has shown. The ban on drugs does not have the support of the majority of the Dutch population. Most use is not problematic and users would rather buy their goods in a legal market, with quality guarantees and tax revenues to be spent on the people who do get into trouble.
It is time for the legal regulation of drug markets, starting with cannabis. Now, and not after a half-baked experiment lasting four, five or six years. Then the other drug markets. Yes, this will create obstacles internationally. It will not be possible to amend the international conventions on drugs overnight.
That is no reason to give up. Forty years ago, Dutch ministers wanted to engage in that debate, but they were dismissed as naïve, and all those years that could have been spent developing a sensible and effective drugs policy have been lost. There are options for taking a new path with like-minded countries.
Tom Blickman is a drug policy reform expert at the Transnational Institute (TNI)
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