’Level of debate on Drugs’

By Alfa · May 4, 2004 ·
  1. Alfa
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    article, published in the newspaper NRC/Handelsblad


    It is about time that valid arguments started to dominate the debate on drugs rather than the old platitudes, according to Peter Cohen, Freek Polak and Jan G. van der Tas.

    The poor level of argumentation regarding drug policy was demonstrated by the Chairman of the Dutch Board of Procurators General, Mr De Wijkerslooth, and his interviewer Paul Witteman in the TV programme Buitenhof on Sunday 6 October 2002. They discussed the appeal made by the departing president of the Amsterdam Court of Justice Gisolf to decriminalise drug cases. Chairman de Wijkerslooth put forward three arguments to show why that could not be done:
    1. We are bound hand and foot by the international conventions;
    2. After legalization, drug dealers will revert to other illegal activities;
    3. We do not know the consequences of legalization.
    Mr Witteman did not know what to say to these arguments, giving the impression that the arguments were irrefutable, while they are nothing but the same old platitudes.

    The reason for judge Gisolf to argue in favour of the decriminalisation of drugs - the paralysing effect of the endless number of drug cases on law enforcement and the administration of justice - is not the only reason why it is about time to reconsider our drug policies. The 'drug-related nuisance' experienced by many people in deprived neighbourhoods continues to exist, or is spread out at best. This misery is primarily the result of the prohibition of drugs, not of the use of drugs in itself. The elections are just around the corner, the UN drug policy is to be evaluated in April 2003, and the subject can hardly be ignored in the general debate on social norms and values.

    Strictly speaking, the Netherlands are bound hand and foot by international treaties, as the first argument goes. However, it is not impossible to amend or even denounce conventions providing for rules that have a detrimental effect - conventions that are an obstacle to the logical and sensible development of our drug policy and that are causing incredible damage all over the world. We need to distance ourselves from the notion that there should be one system only to regulate the drug market, and that the only feasible system is a system of total prohibition, to be applied globally and uniformly. In looking for alternatives to the failing American system of drug prohibition, a system that is bound to be failing, our thinking should not stop at the Dutch borders by pleading 'international aspects'. The Netherlands are equally responsible for the formulation and preservation - against our better judgment - of UN and EU policies.
    This requires special attention from Parliament and general public alike.

    It is hard to believe that any lawyer could apply the argument that 'after legalization, drug dealers will revert to other illegal activities'. After all, how could the legal basis for the penalization of certain actions ever be that the 'offenders' might otherwise turn to worse offences? As if drugs prohibition were an employment scheme for criminals. After the Prohibition in the US had been abolished in 1933, about one third of the bootleggers who had been active up to that point, quit, one third settled down to legal activities and one third went on to conduct the same or other illegal activities. Whichever way you look at it, this was an important decrease in the volumes traded on the black market.

    It is true that the consequences of legalization cannot be predicted with certainty, but we do know the consequences of drugs prohibition laws. We refer to the figures regarding the use of drugs in the Netherlands and in the US. Apparently, the result of harsh repression is not a decrease in the use of drugs, but only an increase in the number of prison cells. Repressive drug policies may limit the recreational use of drugs to a certain extent, at an enormous cost to society, but will increase the volume and seriousness of problematic use significantly. One thing is certain: the so-called fight against drugs - which in effect boils down to leaving the market open to criminals - stimulates the illegal trade in drugs and makes the use and the abuse of drugs more dangerous for everyone.

    In an informed debate, the three objections made by Mr De Wijkerslooth would not stand up. The same goes for many other arguments that have been raised against legalization. Over the past few years, decisions have been taken repeatedly that were not based on a conscious choice for the direction the policy was taking, but were rather ad hoc reactions to criticisms from abroad that were often exaggerated or unjust. If we refuse to think our own policies through because of 'other countries', we will end up with a set of measures that will become ever more inconsistent and hard to explain. If the Netherlands had co-operated with a number of likeminded countries to abolish the ban on drugs in the longer term, and to review the UN drug conventions in the medium term, the farcical debate on the issue of the body packers and the measures that were taken as a result - whereby common sense was thrown out of the window - could have been avoided.

    Even though Mr Donner, the Dutch Minister of Justice, has taken other decisions than his predecessor, little is known about his considerations, which do not seem to indicate an individual Dutch position on drug policy. Nor did the drug policy get the attention it deserved in the debate on norms and values, even though this topic concerns a number of important values: it does not only concern health and security issues, but also the protection and education of young persons, the responsibility of people for themselves and others, and last but certainly not least, the fact that the government should do its job. When these issues are discussed at all, different types of arguments are mixed up: some are ethical, others are of a practical, medical, social or legal nature.

    According to the outdated Dutch Opium Act the reason for the introduction of a prohibition of drugs is that the risks involved in the use of drugs would be unacceptable to public health. We should know by now that the consequences of risky patterns of use should be limited by the legal regulation of the supply, rather than by prohibiting drugs altogether. Moreover, to most users, the health risks are not unacceptable.

    In some countries, and to some Dutch people, ethical considerations do matter: drugs should be fought because the use of drugs might result in (young) people behaving in an undignified or criminal manner, ruining and endangering their lives. However, this is yet another problem that is caused by the fight against drugs rather than by the use of drugs.

    Supporters of legalization also appeal to moral values, such as self-determination, autonomy, respect for - or at least tolerance of - behaviour that is frowned upon, but that does not harm others. They warn against the gigantic collateral damage of the American war on drugs, such as the disintegration of the political structures in production and transit countries, corruption of the legal system, the rapid growth of the prison population and a criminal system of distribution, violence and corruption, similar to the period of the prohibition of alcohol.

    Mr Donner recently suggested in the Dutch Lower House of Parliament that, to his mind, drugs are primarily a social wrong. He seemed prepared to admit that the subject is still open to discussion. This discussion should now, at last, be conducted openly, particularly in view of the election campaigns.

    Peter Cohen is a researcher with the Centre for Drug Research of the University of Amsterdam. Freek Polak works as a psychiatrist for the treatment of drug addicts and Jan G. van der Tas is a former ambassador, both are members of the Board of the Netherlands Drug Policy Foundation.</TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE></TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>

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