taxpayer less, and that both drugs-related deaths and the number of hard-drugs users were the lowest in Europe. He concluded that the United Kingdom would also benefit from a more pragmatic, public health-oriented drugs policy.
Such pragmatism rules in the Netherlands by distinguishing soft drugs (hashish and cannabis) from hard drugs (heroin, cocaine, ecstasy). Hard drugs pose an unacceptable health hazard, but soft drugs are far less dangerous. Addiction to soft drugs is rare and, in any case, less common than addiction to sleeping pills or alcohol. Both soft and hard drugs are illegal, but the sale of small quantities (5 grams) of soft drugs, for personal use only, is tolerated in coffee-shops.
Van der Ploeg contended that the economic case for a more liberal drugs policy was clear. During the period 1983–93, heroin had cost, on average, £28 per gram in the Netherlands, compared with £74 per gram in the United Kingdom. Taking drugs out of the criminal circuit reduces both their price and addicts' need to steal. Thus fewer criminal offences are committed and less nuisance caused. Citizens feel safer and the taxpayer spends less on police, judges and prisons. Given that 50% of the price of a packet of cigarettes is accounted for by tax, there is no reason why soft drugs could not be taxed heavily. Moreover, drugs usage in the Netherlands was lower than in more restrictive countries such as France or the United Kingdom. About two-thirds of UK 20–22 year-olds claim to have used an illegal drug. For the under-40 age group, 29% have smoked a joint, 11% have used amphetamines and 4% ecstasy. These proportions were a lot higher than in drugs-tolerant Netherlands.
There were other advantages, too. With a more liberal policy, it was easier to ensure that drug users had regular medical check-ups. By bringing drug users out into the open, it had been possible to make prevention and kicking-the-habit schemes more effective. Experiments were also under way to give heroin to addicts under medical supervision. To minimize the spread of AIDS, heroin addicts also received free syringes. The policy was working: only 10.4% of AIDS victims in the Netherlands were intravenous drugs users, compared with 39.2% in the European Union as a whole. Most of them had a 'normal' job. The Zurich experience had been similar.
The Dutch emphasis on public health and on harm-reduction was also not without its successes. The number of drugs-related deaths per million inhabitants in 1995 was the lowest in Europe: 2.4, versus 9.5 in France, 20 in Germany, 23.5 in Sweden and 27.1 in Spain. The average age of heroin addicts was 36, much higher than elsewhere in Europe. The number of hard-drugs users was the lowest in Europe: 1.6% of the population, versus 2.6% in the United Kingdom and 2.7% for Europe as a whole.
Importing and exporting of drugs none-the-less remained the most serious offences under the Dutch Opium Act, with maximum penalties of four years' imprisonment for soft drugs and 12 years' for hard drugs, plus a fine of 100,000 guilders. Following the abolition of the internal border controls of the Schengen countries, controls at external borders had also been stepped up, especially at Schiphol Airport and Rotterdam port.
Pragmatic, rather than ideological, considerations were thus driving Dutch drugs policy. The Dutch cherished the freedom of the individual; and drugs use was treated more as a medical than as a legal problem. Priority was given to protecting vulnerable groups (especially youngsters), tackling drugs-related nuisance, keeping public order, and restricting both the demand for, and supply of, drugs. Prohibition had failed. The United Kingdom could learn from this approach of separating soft from hard drugs, being tough where necessary and tolerant where possible. The result would be a less repressive, more open, safer and a more healthy society.
For further research on this topic, see Aloys Prinz, 'Drugs: Do European
Drugs Policies Matter?'
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