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by Otto Janssen


Between the Dutch drugs policy and the drugs policies of elsewhere in Western Europe, there exist the following differences. In contrast to the other countries, in the Netherlands, the distinction, well known in drug users circles, between soft and hard drugs has been recognized in the Opium Act.

The juridical formulation is, of course, much more complicated, but practically speaking, the use of cannabis products has been legalized; every town has at least one "hash and coffee shop", and the possession of less than 30 grams is not prosecuted by the police. In spite of this liberalization of use of soft drugs, traff cking in cannabis products is still forbidden. Besides the possession of hash, the possession by addicts of a 'usersamount' (an amount less than a gram heroin, cocaine or morphine) has been permittedl.

Furthermore, in the Netherlands, there are no legal grounds for compulsory kicking the habit, nor is kicking the habit considered to be a condition of extending aid to the users of illegal drugs. As the Dutch Minister of Justice put it in 1987:

"In the Netherlands we give high priority to services directed pffmarily at improving the health and social functioning of the addict, without necessarily ending addiction, because a lot of addicts are not, or not yet, capable of kicking the habit. Addiction involves a lifestyle which cannot be changed easily and quickly" 2

This brings us to a third difference between the Dutch drugs policy and those of the neighbouring countries. In the Dutch policy "primary (or low threshold) care facilities" have an important place. Secondary care facilities, for complete clarification, are the more traditional clinics and therapeutic communities. These, of course, also are part of the Dutch drugs policy. The difference, however, between Holland and the other states lies in the primary care facilities. In the course of the development of the drugs problem, a network of this type of care facilities came into being in the Netherlands. They were charged with a great variety of tasks, such as: being an intermediary between the official society and the world of drugs users; taking care of their material conditions; organizing the methadon programmes, as well as needle exchange programmes, and providing condoms to heroin prostitutes. All these activities were not directed at kicking the use of drugs, but simply at harm reduction or the limitation of damage to the health of the addict or to his or her social functioning.

The de facto legalization of the distinction between hard and soft drugs, the modest aims of the aid to drugs users, and the important place of low threshold facilities within the framework of the Dutch drugs policy, are three branches of the same tree: the pragmatical character of the Dutch drugs policy. In contrast to this, there are the drugs policies of the other Western States, whose policies can be characterized as legalistic.

I.Pragmatic and legalistic drugs policy

Both forms of drugs policies have a similar background in the successive International Drug Conventions. The goals of these treaties are clear: "controlling the production and manufacture (...) of drugs, and controlling the habit of drug addiction; prevention (...) demands effective treatment facilities including opportunities for the rehabilitation of drug addicts"3.

In these treaties, the juridical (more specifically: the penal law) and the medical (and more specifically: the public health) points of view on drug abuse are interwoven; this is also the case in both forms of drugs policies. However, the relation between the juridical and medical aspects of the drugs problem are different in both drugs policies.

In the case of a legalistic drugs policy, both points of view fit exactly to each other. In both points of view, the definitions of drugs abuse and the drugs problem respectively, are in a certain sense interchangeable. Moreover, in a legalistic drugs policy, both the juridical and the medical points of view have in common the rejection on moral grounds of illegal drugs, and everything connected to them. These moral grounds are, in their turn, strongly anchored in a dominant culture. Later I shall return to that concept. For the present it is sufficient to note that in a legalistic drugs policy the drugs problem is defined primarily a moral issue, which, as such, legitimizes the application of repressive means by the criminal justice system. The central point of this policy, therefore, lies within the criminal justice system itself.

The Dutch pragmatic drugs policy, which highlights at the same time the main difference from legalistic policy, is characterized by the fact that both perspectives on illegal drugs have been dispersed, or have become independent of each other. A uniting moral conviction is absent from this form of drug policy. Due to their relative autonomy, the criminal justice system and the public health system achieved a position from which they could develop their own definition of the drugs problem and, more importantly, develop their own policy. Pragmatism has occupied the place of the moral convictions of the legalistic policy, and this pragmatism is the organizational principle of the Dutch drugs policy. The measures I have just mentioned can be seen as the results of this pragmatic and non-moralistic drug policy. Most of them refer to the public health aspect of the drugs problem and, because of the relative autonomy, the public health institutions were able to develop their own line of policy. In this respect, there exists an important difference when compared to the legalistic drug policy, in which the health aspect is subordinated to the much more repressive criminal justice policy of the legal system.

The questions arise how and why in Holland did this type of drugs policy come into being. I will try to answer these questions in two steps.

Since drugs policy, like policies in general, is neither a product of politicians' drawing board, nor the result of scientific conferences, we have to go back to the roots of the pragmatic drugs policy and follow its process of development. That will be the first step. Secondly, we have to find an answer to the question why this kind of policy was able to develop in the Netherlands.

2. The origins of pragmatic drug policy

The year 1972 is a turning-point in the history of the drugs problem in the Netherlands. In that year heroin appeared on the drugs market.

Nevertheless, in the roaring Sixties, there already existed such a thing as a drugs problem. Hash- and marihuana-smoking middle-class "cultural rebels", LSD-swallowers, also mostly cultural rebels, amphetamines-users among lower-class youngsters, were the main ingredients of the drugs problem at that time. The Dutch drugs policy, if one already could speak of such, did not differ from that of the other Western countries. That is to say, that like evelywhere else, one tried to get control of the drugs problem by using the repressive means of the criminal justice system. The efforts were not very successful, resembling more the Tom and Jerrie movies. As is now, unfortunately on a less innocent scale, the war on drugs.

In this period the drugs problem had been considered already as a part of a much more complicated problem of rebellious and otherwise deviant youth. This perspective on the drugs problem is the cornerstone of the specific Dutch drugs policy. In that policy, the drugs problem is seen and defined as a social problem, which means that this policy is mainly directed, to put it in economic terms, to the demand side of the drugs problem, while the legalistic drugs policy is oriented toward the supply side.

The introduction of the heroin did not change this. The effects of the heroin became visible in the second half of the Seventies: junkies appearing on the streets, the arrival of new immigrants who considered "drugs" as merchandise, and, last but not least, a sharp increase in drugs-related crime. The drugs problem became, in this period, predominantly a heroin problem. Although this caused a quantitative and qualitative change in the drugs problem, the principles of the drugs policy stayed the same. It remained, in other words, oriented toward the demand side. And, one could say, even more than previously. This is related to the fact that the institutions in charge of the execution of drugs policy on the demand side (to be more concrete: all kinds of social youth work) were financed by a social security law with, as it is called, an open end. This meant subsidies could be refused on very few grounds. The primary care facilities or low threshold facilities had their financial basis in this social security act. Certainly in the beginning of the heroin problem this led to uncontrolled growth of this kind of institutions. More important, however, is that these facilities became institutionalized and developed themselves into a sounding board of the interests of drugs users.

This certainly contributed to the change in the Opium Act in 1976, by which cannabis products were defined as being drugs with acceptable risks and, as such, were put on list II of the International Drug Convention. In legal respects, this is the major difference between the two forms of drugs policy. The aim of the alteration of the Opium Act was to separate the worlds of soft drugs and of hard drugs. Here again we view the drugs problem from the demand side.

This is the tendency of the Dutch drugs policy during the Seventies, and it has been translated into measures to prevent the worsening of the condition of hard drug users in terms of their social functioning as well as their health. This caused a lot of tension with the institutions which were responsible for the criminal law aspect of the drugs problem. This certainly was true in the beginning of the heroin problem. Because of their relative autonomy both parties developed their own policy. In the long run, however, they found an equilibrium by an allocation of task: the social and medical care institutions accounted for the demand side, and the juridical institutions oriented themselves toward the supply side of the drugs problem.

This coalition was linked by pure pragmatism.

During the Eighties, the drugs problem changed in two respects. Not only the definition of the drugs problem changed, but also the structure of the drugs problem. The outcome of this conjunction of changes is a drugs policy which is based on the normalization of the drugs problem.

The change in the definition of the drugs problem was a result of several sociological investigations into the world of heroin users. These research projects, in short, revealed that the careers of hard drugs users were a continuation of the lifestyles of deviant and delinquent youth.

Secondly, these research projects made clear that, concerning harddrug users, one cannot speak of "junkies" as a general concept. Hard drug users get mixed up in the world of drugs via several roads, and every road delivers a totally different type of heroin career. Thus, drugs policy has taken into account the existence of several types of hard drug users.

Thirdly, heroin careers develop in the subcultures of deviant and/or delinquent youth.

Fourthly, and most importantly, as long as these subcultures fulfil their intermediate functions between the supply and demand sides of the drugs, the drugs problem must been seen as a problem which is reproducing itself. Drugs policy also has to take that fact into account. This means that the drugs problem is a part of the social structure of the Dutch society: the negative spin-off of all the products which that society produces. A radical, and of course hypothetical, solution to the drugs problem carries the intrinsic danger of destroying the other, positive, products.

Therefore the drugs problem must be understood as a normal social problem, as for example, alcoholism and nicotinism. Thus we are speaking here of the normalization of the drugs problem, not, as it sometimes is interpreted, of drugs use.

This new definition of the drugs problem implies, in a certain sense, an inversion of the drugs policy of the Seventies. In that period, the philosophy behind the measures was, to put it simply, every measure can contribute to the reduction of the drugs problem; every little bit helps. By "inversion" I mean: reduction and control is the goal of the drugs policy, and then the question arises as to what kind of measures can be taken to attain that goal.

This redefinition of the drugs problem as a normal social problem, has little effect on the practical side of the drug policy. All measures, which mostly originate in the Seventies and the late Sixties, were maintained into the Eighties.

In two respects, the redefinition of the drugs problem as a normal social problem is important. Firstly, it legitimized the pragmatic approach of the drugs problem of the seventies. Secondly, it became the collective denominator under which the institutions in charge of the execution of the drugs policy functioned.

The redefinition of the drugs policy has been reinforced by the changing structure of the drugs problem during the Eighties. Firstly, it became clear that the heroin problem was stabilizing. Secondly, cocaine appeared on the drugs market. Finally, the relation between AIDS and intravenous drug use has been proven. For different reasons these changes contributed to the revision of the drugs policy, in terms of the normalization of the drugs problem.

3. Prerequisites

So far, the process described gives at least a comprehensive answer to the question how in Holland a drugs policy, oriented toward the normalization of the drugs problem, came into being. However it does not answer the question why this happened. Therefore we must have a closer look at the societal backgrounds of this policy.

3.1. Structural prerequisites

As far as the structural conditions are concerned, one could say that they were created by the Dutch version of the Welfare State. The earlier mentioned Social Security Act, which gives the primary care facilhies their financial and institutional base, is one of the conditions. But it is not the only one. In the Dutch Welfare State, medical care for all citizens is more or less guaranteed. This is also the case for drugs users. They also have the right to medical care regardless of their addiction. A well- functioning medical care system was also a condition for the normalization of the drugs problem.

Another condition created by the Welfare State has to do with a Social Security Act which allows a minimum income to people who are not able to work. Recent research shows that certain types of addicts learned to adapt their level of drugs use to that income4. Delinquency was, in their situation, no longer a source of income to sponsor their habit, which, of course, means that the Dutch model is limited in its applications. It is, for example, not very useful in the U. S.A.

3.2. Cultural backgrounds

Until the Sixties, the Dutch cultural system was built on two layers (levels). The underlayers were formed by different subcultures and none of them was powerful enough to dominate the others. The structural bases of these subcultures was a combination of social-class characteristics and movements of philosophies of life, most of them being of christian origin. Seen from the outside, Dutch society had some resemblance to a "matrix organisation". In the Dutch matrix however, every square represents a subculture. For the participants, these subcultures were the main frame of reference.

The upperlayers contain the dominant culture, a system of rules which takes care of the common interest, and regulates the relations of the subcultures. But the dominant culture has no control over the way of life of the participants in Dutch society. This is strictly a matter of the subcultures themselves. This whole, complicated system of underlayers and upperlayers, are kept together by institutionalized tolerance, which, in the Dutch situation, is a prerequisite for the functioning of the social system.

During the Sixties this cultural system was put under such high pressure that it didn't function any more. I shall not delineate the reasons for this here. What matters here is the simple fact that drugs arrived in Holland at a moment when the cultural system was in a kind of crisis. This, of course, can explain why drugs took root so quickly in Dutch society.

Because of the fact that the cultural system during that period was not able to define the drugs as a problem, the political system was in a certain sense forced to take over this function. Thus, in an early stage of development of the drugs problem, the political and not the cultural system defined the drugs problem. This implies, for example, that the discussion concerning legalization of drugs was, and is, an open and ongoing discussion. But besides that, the fact that in Holland the political system defined the drugs problem, has set a stamp upon the Dutch drugs policy. It meant a non-moralistic definition of the problem, based on compromises, and a pragmatic policy. This "Dutch model", as it sometimes is called, is a halfway station between, on the one hand, a repressive drugs policy and, on the other hand, the legalization of drugs.

Literature on (Dutch) drugs policy

ALBRECHT, H-J., A M. van KALMTHOUT (eds), Drug policies in Western Europe, Crirninological Research Reports by the Max Planck Insitute for Foreign and International Penal Law, Freiburg, 1989.

CHATTERJEE, S.K., The Limitations ofthe International Drug Conventions. In: Drug Policies in Western Europe,7-20.

DOWNES, D., Contrasts in Tolerance; Post-war Penal Policy in the Netherlands and England and Wales, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Dwang en Drang in de Hulpverlening asn Verslaafden, Tweede Kamer der Staten Generaal, 20415, nrs. l-2, 1988.

ENGELSMAN, E.L., Drug Policy: is the cure worse than the disease? To a process of nommalization of drug problems. In: Proceedings of the 15th Intemational Conference on Prevention and Treatment of Drug Dependence, Rotterdam, 1987.

ENGELSMAN, E.L., Het Nederlandse Drugbeleid in West-Europees perspectief, In: GROENHUIJSEN, M.S., AM. van KALMTHOUT, Nederlands Drugsbeleid in West-Europees Perspectief, Amhem, 1988. (Proceedings of the Intemational Conference on Drug Policy, K.U.B., Tilburg).

ERKELENS, L.H., Ontwikkelingen in het Nederlands Penitentiair Drugsbeleid. In: Tijdschrift voor Alcohol, Drugs en andere Psychotrope Stoffen, 1987, 13: 107-114.

GROENHUIJSEN, M.S., AM. van KALMTHOUT (eds), Nederlands Drugbeleid in WestEuropees Perspectief, Amhem, 1989.

Intemational Drug Conventions:

U.N. Drug Conventions:

  • The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs,1961.
  • Conventions on Psychotropic Substances, 1971.
  • Also:

    The Draft against Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotopic Substances and Related Activities, 1984.

    Draft Legal Guide on Electronic Fund Transfers, 1984.

    Strategy and Policies for Drug Control (Report of the Expert Group on Countermeasures to Drug Smuggling by Air and Sea), 1985

    Recommendations Regarding a Comprehensive Multi-discinplinary Outline of Future Activities relevant to the Problem of Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, 1987.

    JANSSEN, O., K. SWIERSTRA, Uitgangspunten voor een Integraal Heroinebeleid, (Startingpoints for an Integral Heroine Policy), Criminologische Instituut, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 1983.

    JANSSEN, O., K. SWIERSTRA, On Defining "Hard Core Addicts", Institute of Criminology, UniversityofGroningen, 19S3.

    Paper for: Symposium on the Care of Hard Core Addicts, Council of Europe, Strasbourg, March 1983.

    KORTHALTS ALTES, F., Adress to Intemational Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, Vienna 17-26 june 1987.

    MASTRIGT, H. van. The Abolition of Drug Policy: Toward Strategic Altematives. In: Joumal of Drug Issues, 1990, 20: 647-658. (Altematives to the War on Drugs)

    Recent Developments in the American War on Drugs, Intemational Conferene on Drug Policy, K.U.B., Tilburg, 1988.

    Richtlijnen voor het Opsporings- en Strafvorderingenbeleid inzake Strafbare Feiten van de Opiumwet, In: Stsatscourant, 1980, 137, p.7.

    WEVER, L.J.S., Drug Problems and Drug Policy in the Netherlands, Paper for: WHO-worhshop on the Prevention and Treatment of Drug Dependence, Brussel, 1983.

    WIJNGAART, G.F. van de., Competing Perspectives on Drug Use; the Dutch Experience, Utrecht, 1990.

    WIJNGAART, G.F. van de, The Dutch Approach: Nomlalization of Drug Problems. In: Joumal of Drug Issues, 1990, 20: 667-678.

    World Health Organization: Guidelines for the Control of Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances in the Context of Intemational Treaties, 1984.


    Richtlijnen voor het Opsporings- en Strafvorderingenbeleid inzake Strafbare Feiten von den Opiumwet. In: Staatscourant, 1980, 137, p. 7.

    2 KORTHALS ALTES, F., Adress to Intemational Conference in Drug Abuse und Illicit Traffsckin& Vienna, 17-26 june, 1987.

    3 CHATTERJEE, S.K., The Limitations of the Intemational Drug Conventions. In: Albrecht, H.-J., and A. M. van Kalmthout (eds), Drug policies in Westem Europe, Criminological Research Reports by the Max Planck Institut for Foreign and Intemational Penal Law, Freiburg, 1989, (note 2, p. 8-9).

    4 SWIERSTRA, K., Drugscarrieres. Van crimineel tot conventioneel, Onderzoekscentrum voor Criminologie en Jeugdoriminologie, RUG, Groningen, 1990.


    This article is based on a presentation at the coference "Legalisierung von Heroin - Die neue Debatte" staged by the Institute of Criminal Science and the Bremer Institut fur Drogenforschung (BISDRo) in June 1992. It was previously published in a reader containing the presentations of that conference edited by Lorenz Bollinger.