special to Drug War Chronicle by John Calvin Jones, Department of Political Science, Xavier University, New Orleans
The Dutch parliament (Tweede Kamer) has voted to expand the country's free heroin program after hearing of the overwhelmingly positive results of a two-year pilot program, the Rotterdam newspaper de Volksrant reported March 5. The pilot program is currently providing free heroin to some 300 users, who must be Dutch nationals and at least 25 years of age. The program, started in March 2002, came about as the Ministries of Public Health, Social Affairs, and Justice recognized that despite their best efforts to stop and reduce heroin use, the county had anywhere from one to two thousand hardcore heroin addicts who could not or would not kick the habit. By this summer, a thousand Dutch users could be in the program, parliament members told the newspaper.
Government officials had supported the original pilot project in part because of anticipated economic and social benefits. And they are seeing them. Public Health Minister Borst told de Volksrant that the free heroin program costs around 15,000 euro per patient annually, a far cry less than the costs of prison and petty crime associated with black market drug use.
The policy also conserves law enforcement resources, and keeps heroin users in touch with mainstream society. "All the statistics point to the fact that free heroin is the best policy," Dr. Wim Van den Brink, director of the Dutch agency to treat heroin addicts (CCBH), told the newspaper. After one year in the program, according to Van den Brink, all participants had better mental and physical health, while the number of days addicts engaged in crime to "score" heroin dropped from 14 to two per month.
The announcement that the pilot program would be not only continued but expanded is remarkable coming from a Dutch government controlled by the conservative Christian Democrats (Christen Democratisch Appel or CDA). In addition to earning its rightist stripes by appealing to anti-immigrant sentiments, and sending Dutch troops to Afghanistan and supporting the US occupation of Iraq in the face of mass public opposition, the CDA has proven no friend of relaxing drug laws.
In January 2002, as reported by the newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, before they gained power, the CDA sponsored and passed a bill to prohibit the "testing" of MDMA (ecstasy) pills at raves for impurities or adulterants. For about 10 years local city governments turned a blind eye and allowed such tests at youth centers and private raves as a harm reduction measure, said the Algemeen Dagblad. Despite the obvious public health benefits, the CDA, joined with other Christian and right-wing parties banned the practice. Further, in May 2002 (The Week Online, Issue #238, May 24, 2002), the CDA floated a trial balloon about closing down hash bars and has continued to make similar noises ever since. Their ideological preferences notwithstanding, even CDA leaders, unlike their American counterparts in the US Congress or the Bush Administration, cannot challenge statistics showing the success of free heroin.
Dutch social scientist and drug expert Peter Cohen has famously noted that drug policy has little to do with drug use levels. A comparison of Dutch and US heroin use rates appears to support his point. According to the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the lifetime use rate was 0.85 in the harshly prohibitionist US, while Cohen and other researchers have found lifetime use rates in the more tolerant Netherlands about half the US rate, 0.4%