Going Dutch, American Style? Netherlands Politicians Take Aim at High-Potency Nederwiet, but Restrictions Still Seem Unlikely 4/23/04

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special to Drug War Chronicle, by John Calvin Jones, Political Science Dept., Xavier University

As widely reported in the Dutch press, on April 6 two top government ministers announced that they want the government to consider banning the sale of Nederwiet (the generic name for the various high-potency strains bred by Dutch growers beginning in the 1980s). Justice Minister Donner of the Christian Democrats (CDA) and Public Health Minister Hoogervorst of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) suggested that the sale of Nederwiet should be prohibited. Rather than condemn marijuana outright, the officials suggested that the THC levels in Nederwiet have become so high that it should be considered a "hard drug" (a term the Dutch use to describe heroin, morphine, cocaine, LSD, and PCP -- there is still a bit of ambivalence is to which category they should assign ecstasy and mushrooms). Because hard drugs cannot be sold legally in coffeeshops (hash bars), redefining Nederwiet as a hard drug would ban its sale.

In couching the move in terms of public health, the ministers insisted that their primary concern was to curb drug abuse and addiction. In a bait-and-switch routine that would make Barry McCaffrey or John Walters proud, the ministers' announcement included a note that the number of addicts in the Netherlands ranges somewhere from 30,000 to 80,000, with only around 3,500 seeking help. But what officials -- both Dutch and American -- fail to mention is that such "addicts" typically report difficulties with heroin use. It is less often that Dutch users cite cocaine or alcohol as their problem drug of choice, and only in the rarest instances do young people find marijuana use as problematic.

In fact, according to the Dutch National Drug Monitor 2002 report, fewer than 3,500 Hollanders of any age sought out-patient drug treatment for cannabis in 2001. A report from the University of Amsterdam Center for Drug Studies (CEDRO) in 1996 estimated that less than one-half of one percent of Dutch adults were "cannabis dependent." Given that they are not arrested, drug tested, expelled from school, or kicked off of sports teams for using weed, why should Dutch youth see pot smoking as a problem? In fact, results from a 1998 international test by the National Center on Educational Statistics showed that teens from the Netherlands, who on average smoke marijuana more often that do American kids, are also far more proficient at math. Further, Donner's move to link Nederwiet, and by extension marijuana, to heroin addiction is curious, when according to government studies from the Trimbos Institute in Utrecht, only 2.5 to 3% of all Dutch adults use soft drugs regularly.

In presenting a package of new drug policy proposals, Ministers Donner and Hoogervoorst added that they wanted to make it more difficult for "drug tourists" to buy marijuana. The government leaders claim that local Dutch officials in border cities are asking for such a change and that border nations continually complain about how easily one can buy soft drugs in the Netherlands. Donner also suggested that the parliament might need to pass a law to forbid foreigners from buying weed. Donner informed the Tweede Kamer (Dutch parliament) that given the country's status as a member of the European Union, Dutch coffeeshops near the border must become strict enforcers of such a law if the Netherlands is to maintain its current laws that allow domestic production and consumption.

What is surprising is that Hoogervorst, as a leader of the libertarian VVD, would openly back Donner's proposal. Historically, when it comes to Dutch drug policy, the VVD has supported science, individual freedom and responsibility over patronizing laws that restrict individual choice and legal avenues of commerce. An indication that Hoogervorst's stance was causing uneasiness within his party came when the VVD, trying to temper an anticipated political and public backlash against itself and coalition partner the CDA, declared that it has no plans to reclassify marijuana as a hard drug. "That question must first be studied," said two ruling-coalition members of the Tweede Kamer.

In the typical Dutch fashion of accommodation and consensus-seeking, both Donner and Hoogervorst said Nederwiet should be investigated to determine if its high THC levels, on average about 15%, make it as addictive as heroin or cocaine, or if Nederwiet users suffer high unemployment rates, engage in crime, or manifest mental health problems similar to hard drug addicts.

The call for another study might only be a short-term solution to a looming political crisis, though. In the long run, marijuana policy could break the current majority in the Tweede Kamer. The third coalition party member, the "Democrats of 1966" or D66, included a call for the outright legalization of soft drugs in their party platform in the run up to the last election. Still, as a minor party in the current government, after the announcement by Donner and Hoogervorst, D66 leaders took a pragmatic stance and chimed in that a study on the harmful nature of Nederwiet is important so the public can learn if the drug indeed produces unacceptable or previously unknown individual or social harm.

Reaction to the attack on Nederwiet, and by extension, the Dutch cannabis economy based on it, was swift and predictable. The largest opposition party, PvdA, the Dutch labor party, called the notions that Nederwiet be regulated as a hard drug or shares properties of heroin or cocaine "incomprehensible." The party said that banning Nederwiet would lead to more illegal drug use (by definition) and increase public health risks. PvdA leaders said that prohibition will not lower consumption of Nederwiet and that THC levels will remain high, but visibility of users and marijuana will decrease. "We want the use of soft drugs to remain in the open and well regulated. As you move it into the field of illegality, that cannot happen," said PvdA leaders. One aim of the Dutch decriminalization policy was to prevent the social stigma, marginalization and isolation that prohibition laws create.

That's why, for those reasons that still make sense today, in 1973 then-newly appointed Public Health Minister, Irene Vorrink (PvdA) announced that the Netherlands would treat drug use primarily as a public health matter, not exclusively a criminal one. One of the first objectives of the marijuana harm-reduction model was to separate the soft drugs from harder drugs like heroin and cocaine -- that is, remove marijuana from the back alleys to the mainstream -- where respectable shop owners and proprietors would, like bartenders, sell a recreational drug to adults. While cross-national comparisons are problematic, heroin and cocaine use rates are far higher in the prohibitionist US than in the pragmatic Netherlands, where Dutch officials consider the policy of separating drug markets a success.

Any move to ban Nederwiet would also run afoul of economic interests, notably the Vereniging van Cannabisdetaillisten (Cannabis Retailers Union or CRU), which stated the obvious in speaking out against the government announcement. According to Jan Goos of the CRU, such a prohibition would throw away in an instant what it took forty years to establish -- a safe, stable, and regulated drug market. Coffeeshop owners also warn about the prospect of criminalizing Nederwiet. "Then we will have street dealers and an underground market, mixing the marijuana trade with hard drugs. No one is looking forward to that."

Rejecting histrionic claims about the effects of weed with higher levels of THC, pot dealers say that Nederwiet has none of the characteristics of hard drugs like heroin or cocaine. Pot is still pot -- the question is one of dose, said Goos. According to Goos, coffeeshop workers advise consumers about the strength of Nederwiet. Goos contends that the consumer decides for himself how much weed to put in a joint, just as people put various amounts of Bacardi in their rum and coke.

Ironically, it is because of current Dutch law, which restricts the size of grow operations and the amount of weed a coffeeshop retailer can have in stock at anyone time, that Nederwiet has been developed. According to August de Loor of the Drugs Advice Bureau (Stichting Advies Drugsbureau), when growers do not have much room to grow their crops, they have to make the weed stronger to maximize profits. Still, de Loor insisted that scientific studies have yet to show that higher levels of THC cause any problem in users or society. Reacting to the repackaged "Reefer Madness"-style allegations by the current ministers saying that use of potent marijuana may cause schizophrenia, de Loor responded that "speculation that high levels of THC bring about some type of harm is sheer insanity."

But it is not just the old saw about marijuana "making one crazy" that Christian conservatives in the Netherlands are raising. Present leaders are making silly allegations, long dismissed by their own researchers and politicians. Turning the clock back thirty years (for the Dutch, which means the present-day for American researchers looking for NIH grants), Donner even invoked the discredited "gateway drug" argument, arguing that the fact that there are 30,000 heroin addicts in the Netherlands, up from 10,000 in 1979, is attributable to the country's marijuana policy. Even in the US, in the last four years, USC professor Dr. Mitch Earleywine and the RAND Corporation have published works showing that marijuana is not a gateway drug.

Coming on the heels of the Dutch decision to go forward with its free heroin program (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/328/heroin.shtml), the declarations of the Dutch ministers seem bizarre. But there is one common denominator: a link to the United States of America. After completing his undergraduate degree in law in Amsterdam, Donner, the CDA rightist, studied in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from 1974-1975. For Donner, an Amsterdammer who had witnessed anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and the birth of the Dutch style hippy movement, Ann Arbor in 1974 must have seemed like déjà vu all over again. By 1974 the city's infamous Hash Bash, first held in 1971, was well-established, and marijuana had been decriminalized since passage of a 1972 city ordinance that made the punishment for a first-time, marijuana possession offense only $5. While in Michigan, Donner missed what went on back home -- major policy debates resulting in a declaration by the leaders of the now defunct Catholic party (it would form the basis for the current CDA), who actually led the charge -- ahead of the socialists and Labor party leaders -- for marijuana decriminalization.

While Donner saw one face of the drug culture in the Midwest, Hoogervorst saw another aspect of it in Baltimore and Washington, DC, during the Reagan era. He studied international affairs at Johns Hopkins from 1981-1983 and later lived in Washington, DC. Perhaps seeing high rates of heroin and crack use and violence in and around Baltimore, and our nation's capital, hearing misleading news reports about the death of University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias, all the while hearing Nancy Reagan's "just say no" message as America's prison population soared, Hoogervorst came to see that a harsher, meaner drug policy was the way to go?

But explanations for the behavior of Donner and Hoogervorst need not be based solely on the personal; there is also the realm of realpolitik. The current Dutch regime could be maneuvering to strengthen relations with the Bush administration. Facing its own domestic concerns with Muslim immigrants and anti-Arab sentiments, which have only grown since September 11th, this "coalition partner on the war on terror" could be trying to parlay an anti-Nederwiet position (what the Bush administration might call an anti-terrorism move) into money or aid to buy more US fighter planes, like the Joint Strike Fighter, or payments for her troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the coming months, Dutch parliament directives and American appropriations may provide an answer to why some Dutch leaders want to "Go American."

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Issue #334, 4/23/04 Another Victory in California: Federal Judge Tells Feds to Leave Medical Marijuana Co-op Alone | Florida Pain Patient Sentenced to 25 Years | Texas League of Women Voters to Study Drug Policy | Going Dutch, American Style? Netherlands Politicians Take Aim at High-Potency Nederwiet, but Restrictions Still Seem Unlikely | Newsbrief: Pakistani Opium Farmers Confront Police, Army | Newsbrief: Montana Medical Marijuana Initiative Ready for Signature Gathering | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cop Story | Newsbrief: One Cop Fired, One Cop Cleared in Kentucky Drug War Killings | Newsbrief: Bostonian Sues Over Drug Raid Strip-Search | Court Denies DEA Extension Request for Hemp Food Rehearing | This Week in History | The Reformer's Calendar
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