A call for the decriminalisation of drugs
Source: Het Parool, newspaper, Saturday, 29 Januariy 2000
Criminal law - ideally - protects us against certain acts because we do not want these things to be done to us. The prohibition of drugs, however, does the complete reverse, since it prevents us from buying substances that we, ourselves, wish to take. Even if taking these drugs is safe, the prohibition regulations make our behaviour into a criminal act. Repeal the prohibition of drugs, says R. Dufour, president of the Netherlands Drug Policy Foundation.
Recently, the Dutch Justice Minister, Mr Korthals, was asked by a member of parliament whether he expected a fall in crime if cannabis cultivation to supply coffee shops were to be permitted within certain restrictions.
"That's a good one," he replied, "why not decriminalise theft either? Crime rates would also drop if we did that, wouldn't they?"
A monumental blunder by the Minister of Justice. For drug prohibition is rather an odd one out amongst criminal law provisions. The purpose of the criminal justice system is to protect us against acts that we want the state to safeguard us from. The prohibition of drugs, however, impedes us in our freedom to choose to buy drugs that we ourselves, as consumers, wish to take.
The above situation is exceptional, as criminal provisions of this kind are few and far between. The rare examples of this type of legislation whose purpose is to prevent people from their own foolishness include the provisions that drivers must wear seat belts, and motor cyclists and moped riders must wear crash helmets. But these are exceptions, and sanctions are confined to fines. They cannot be compared with the draconic punishments imposed on drug dealers.
Meanwhile, the drug prohibition has created its own circle of crime. Half of the prison population in our country is serving a sentence for drug-related crime. The IRT-scandal (in which undercover police teams, in an attempt to catch some big fish in organized crime, seem to have smuggled large amounts of cocaine, ecstasy pills and cannabis into the country with the public prosecution turning a blind eye) and everything that happened in its aftermath have shaken the foundations of our legal system. If the drug prohibition laws were repealed and replaced by regulation, decriminalising the production and sale of drugs, our criminal justice system would be more balanced.
The protection of people against undesirable acts would remain as it is, whilst there would be a fall in total crime of several tens of percents. You would expect the public prosecution services to jump at the opportunity of being able to reduce crime. You would expect them to be the first to support the idea. Oddly enough, quite the opposite is true.
When on 1 October 1999, at the initiative of the Netherlands Drug Policy Foundation, no less than 20 mayors asked the government to allow for pilot projects involving the controlled cultivation of cannabis for coffee shops, Minister Korthals seemed far from enthusiastic.
A symposium on the regulation of soft drugs initiated by the Dutch Ministry of Justice that was held last week emanated a sense of reluctance to implement reforms, imagining problems where there are none, and fear of taking action. A curious situation indeed: representatives of the department of justice who seem to wish to wreck a chance of reducing crime. Do they realize that by so doing they appoint themselves to patrons of criminals who earn a fortune in the drug trade?
Not to mention the representatives of the department of health who seem to be afraid to say anything when they are given the chance to offer 500,000 regular cannabis smokers the protection of quality control under the Dutch Commodities Act .
The cComments by Minister Korthals and the attitude of his representatives may serve as an illustrate how ion of the fact that the implementation of the drug prohibition has gained such a momentum that the original motive ation for introducing the prohibition seems to be forgotten is currently being overlooked.
The Ministry of Justice has apparently started to think that the drug prohibition is a goal in itself with regard to criminal justice, and seems to have forgotten that its role is just that of being the Health Ministry's dogsbody in what is supposed to be the interest of public health.
All drugs must remain illegal. Why was that again?
What is the drug problem all about? What is clear is that drug prohibition is not only failing - for drugs can be obtained at any street corner, and even in our prisons - but that it also has three adverse side-effects. For one thing, it leads to congestion of the criminal justice system, with the police force and public prosecution services being swamped with work. Public safety and proper safeguarding of legal rights are affected as a result. There are unnecessary additional health risks for drug consumers because the production and trade are left to organized crime.
Are illicit drugs really all that dangerous anyway? Compared to the true giants amongst addictive drugs, i.e. alcohol and tobacco, illicit drugs seem to be more of a dwarf than anything else. There are 22 thirteen times as many people with an alcohol addiction than people with a drug addiction; 2712 times as many people die prematurely as a result of damage to their health caused by alcohol abuse compared to people who die as a result of drug use, and 133 275 as many die from the effects of smoking.
Is then not the number of people with a drug addiction as limited as it is thanks to drug prohibition somewhat limiting the availability of drugs, or because the prohibition underlines the fact that society condemns the use of drugs?
No. For more then than twenty years now we have been able in the Netherlands to purchase soft drugs in coffee shops, and drug consumption does not noticeably differ from that in countries around us. The question whether policy makers shouldcan come up with a more sensible solution is therefore becoming more and more pressing. In other words: isn't it high time that the Health Secretary, Ms Borst, relieved her colleague, the Minister of Justice, of the onerous burden of the drug prohibition? Surely she is able to regulate the drugs market in a better way than organised crime, which is now in charge of distribution and sale of drugs? Market regulation by criminals is the worst possible option, so of course society is better off if government were to hold the reigns of power where the distribution of drugs is concerned. The Netherlands Drug Policy Foundation has already suggested a model: the use of the discretion expediency principle for not prosecuting not to prosecute those who cultivate cannabis, regulation of the production and sale of other drugs. Attitudes abroad are changing, too. With Jospin at the helm, a wind of change is blowing through France. In Belgium and Germany we see similar developments. Switzerland is already ahead of us and will, in the very near future, take a decision on the recommendations made by a special committee set up by the Swiss parliament to adopt statutory provisions to regulate the production of marihuana and hash.
Meanwhile, in our country the public health sector has taken up the challenge to come to a regulation of drugs. At the end of this month a report entitled 'A new drug policy?' will be released whose aim is to give a new impulse to the debate on the decriminalisation and regulation of drugs.
This initiative brings the responsibility for the shaping of our drug policy back where it belongs:, for that responsibility lies with the Ministry of Health.
In his capacity as the minister responsible for public safety, law and order, Mr Korthals should be knocking on the door of the Ministry of Health every week to plead with Minister Borst to be allowed to do repeal the sinister laws of drug prohibition.
However, we would already be very happy if he would take his beloved fictional character Oblomov as his a model. With this e Prince of Sloth as his example, he should at least he would not do anything that would impede the solution to the drugs problem.