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Saturday 20 December  
Johan Huizinga's picture
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague, Czech Republic

Czech drug policy goes Dutch

Published on : 18 December 2009 - 11:51pm | By Johan Huizinga
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The Netherlands is no longer alone in its permissive approach to drugs. Legislative changes in the Czech Republic look set to make it the country with the most liberal drug policy in Europe.

Probably against their will, the Czechs have found themselves at the forefront of the permissive lobby on drugs. The Czech Republic traditionally pursued a policy which classified possession of "anything more than small amounts of drugs" as a punishable offence, but this vague formulation generated a great deal of confusion.

To put an end to this grey area, the government and parliament set about describing in detail exactly how many grams of each category of drug may be tolerated by law. In doing so, they make a clear distinction between the possession and use of small amounts of drugs on the one hand, and trading in drugs on the other hand.

No legalisation
The fact that the government has painstakingly detailed permissible amounts of drugs has been interpreted by some as legalising drug use. But that is not the case.

The possession and use of smaller amounts of drugs, such as 1 gram of cocaine or 15 grams of marijuana, is no longer a punishable offence but has been downgraded to a misdemeanour which can at most result in a fine.

In this sense, the Czech policy does not differ from the Dutch. For Nathalie Dekker of the drugs information hotline at the Trimbos Institute, therefore, the move does not come as a particular surprise.

In big cities where drug use is widespread, it is not uncommon for people to adapt the law and the rules to the situation. The pressure on politicians builds and builds if people have to be punished for small amounts. At a certain point, that's just not feasible anymore.

Tightening up
Nevertheless, developments in the Czech Republic are in stark contrast to the current trend in the Netherlands. Dutch politics seems to be moving towards stricter policies. There are enough reasons for this, argues Nathalie Dekker.

You can see questions being asked as to whether we aren't giving people too much freedom, especially young people. And, of course, it's worth asking whether a stricter drugs policy makes sense. But I think there is reason enough to look seriously at the effects of drugs and to warn people about them, just as we do with alcohol.

One aspect being alluded to by Nathalie Dekker is the fact that the cannabis sold in the Netherlands nowadays contains a far higher concentration of the active substance than used to be the case. Major dance parties and festivals in the Netherlands are already taking a harder line on drugs possession. But that aside, Nathalie Dekker does not expect any real tightening up of the Dutch policy on drug possession and use.

The stricter policy measures being advocated in the Netherlands are far more concerned with Dutch "coffeeshops" where soft drugs are sold. In other words, it is the trade in soft drugs which is the focus. All in all, the Czechs' permissive policy, restricted as it is to possession and use, is not all that different from that of the Dutch.

Even the fact that the Czech Republic also gives the nod to small amounts of hard drugs is not a new development. The Netherlands applies virtually the same amounts in its own tolerance policy. The emphatic distinction that the Netherlands makes between soft and hard only applies to the trade in drugs. Hard drugs have no place in the Dutch coffee shop.



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David Hart 4 December 2010 - 1:31pm / UK

Many of the comments here seem to be from people who genuinely don't see how it is morally wrong to punish adults using the criminal law simply for using the drug of their choice. If the second word of the phrase 'criminal justice' is to have any meaning at all, it is imperative that no behaviour is criminalised unless that behaviour is deserving of punishment, as opposed to merely risky to one's own health. I challenge anyone here to explain why someone who, say, smokes cannabis or takes MDMA _deserves_ to be punished. The mere fact of having broken the law is not reason enough, because it is my contention that laws criminalising adults for personal drug use are themselves unjust, in the same way as historical laws criminalising homosexuals, or people of the wrong religion, or preventing people from voting on the basis of their sex or skin colour, were unjust.

Drug use is not like most other crimes like murder, rape, theft or fraud, which all cause direct and deliberate harm to other people or their property, so our normal reasons for enacting a criminal law, namely to protect people from the destructive behaviour of others, cannot apply. If your reasons for criminalising drug use boil down to 'it's bad for you', well, firstly, you still need to show why that merits a criminal justice response, and even if you can do that, you must have rock solid evidence that (a) the least dangerous drug you propose to punish people for using is more dangerous than the most dangerous drug you don't (e.g. if you think that MDMA use should be a crime and alcohol use shouldn't, you must prove that MDMA is more harmful than alcohol; if you can't, you are advocating arbitrary punishment, which is the very essence of injustice), and (b) that the least dangerous drug you propose to punish people for using is more dangerous than the most dangerous non-drug recreational activity you don't propose to criminalise (e.g. if you would punish cannabis users but not rock climbers, you must prove that cannabis use is more dangerous than rock climbing - because there is no coherent reason why it should be inherently wrongful to take _chemical_ risks in pursuit of enjoyment, but not _physical_ risks - why should there be a double standard?)

This is not to say that the state shouldn't take an interest in its citizens' health, nor that the minority of drug users whose use leads them to pose a threat to others' safety should be outside the bounds of the criminal law (eg those who drive under the influence of alcohol or other drugs), but we should not base our public health approach on the unjust punishment of the many people who use certain drugs in order to try to prevent harm to the minority of users who pose a serious risk to themselves or others.

Tina 22 July 2011 - 4:10pm

This is truly a great post.

Dean Fromm 1 December 2010 - 8:18pm

I've been to the Netherlands a few years back and the way I see it, situation was getting out of control. I could see kids who hadn't turned 18 yet doing drugs in the middle of the day at plain sight, next to some younger ones who were playing soccer. That's a bit too much for me to take. Hope the rest of Europe doesn't go down the same route. Dean Fromm, Publisher 

Harrishcolin 27 November 2010 - 9:33am

Thank you for this good post  

malcolm kyle 2 October 2010 - 5:58pm / United States

Here are some facts concerning the situation in Holland:

”Cannabis coffee shops" are not only restricted to the Capital of Holland, Amsterdam. They can be found in more than 50 cities and towns across the country. At present, only the retail sale of five grams is tolerated, so production remains criminalized. The mayors of a majority of the cities with coffeeshops have long urged the national government to also decriminalize the supply side.

A poll taken earlier this year indicated that some 50% of the Dutch population thinks cannabis should be fully legalized while only 25% wanted a complete ban. Even though 62% of the voters said they had never taken cannabis. An earlier poll also indicated 80% opposing coffee shop closures.

It is true that the number of coffee shops has fallen from its peak of around 2,500 throughout the country to around 700 now. The problems, if any, concern mostly “drug tourists” and are largely confined to cities and small towns near the borders with Germany and Belgium. These problems, mostly involve traffic jams, and are the result of cannabis prohibition in neighboring countries. “Public nuisance problems” with the coffee shops are minimal when compared with bars, as is demonstrated by the rarity of calls for the police for problems at coffee shops.

While it is true that lifetime and “past-month” use rates did increase back in the seventies and eighties, the critics shamefully fail to report that there were comparable and larger increases in cannabis use in most, if not all, neighboring countries which continued complete prohibition.

According to the World Health Organization only 19.8 percent of the Dutch have used marijuana, less than half the U.S. figure.
In Holland 9.7% of young adults (aged 15–24) consume soft drugs once a month, comparable to the level in Italy (10.9%) and Germany (9.9%) and less than in the UK (15.8%) and Spain (16.4%). Few transcend to becoming problem drug users (0.44%), well below the average (0.52%) of the compared countries.

The WHO survey of 17 countries finds that the United States has the highest usage rates for nearly all illegal substances.

In the U.S. 42.4 percent admitted having used marijuana. The only other nation that came close was New Zealand, another bastion of get-tough policies, at 41.9 percent. No one else was even close. The results for cocaine use were similar, with the U.S. again leading the world by a large margin.

Even more striking is what the researchers found when they asked young adults when they had started using marijuana. Again, the U.S. led the world, with 20.2 percent trying marijuana by age 15. No other country was even close, and in Holland, just 7 percent used marijuana by 15 -- roughly one-third of the U.S. figure.

In 1998, the US Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey claimed that the U.S. had less than half the murder rate of the Netherlands. “That’s drugs,” he explained. The Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics immediately issued a special press release explaining that the actual Dutch murder rate is 1.8 per 100,000 people, or less than one-quarter the U.S. murder rate.

Here’s a very recent article by a psychiatrist from Amsterdam, exposing "Drug Czar misinformation"

Now let's look at a comparative analysis of the levels of cannabis use in two cities: Amsterdam and San Francisco, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health May 2004,

The San Francisco prevalence survey showed that 39.2% of the population had used cannabis. This is 3 times the prevalence found in the Amsterdam sample

Source: Craig Reinarman, Peter D.A. Cohen and Hendrien L. Kaal, "The Limited Relevance of Drug Policy"

Moreover, 51% of people who had smoked cannabis in San Francisco reported that they were offered heroin, cocaine or amphetamine the last time they purchased cannabis. In contrast, only 15% of Amsterdam residents who had ingested marijuana reported the same conditions. Prohibition is the ‘Gateway Policy’ that forces cannabis seekers to buy from criminals who gladly expose them to harder drugs.

The indicators of death, disease and corruption are even much better in the Netherlands than in Sweden for instance, a country praised by UNODC for its “successful” drug policy."

Here's Antonio Maria Costa doing his level best to avoid discussing the success of Dutch drug policy:

The Netherlands also provides heroin on prescription under tight regulation to about 1500 long-term heroin addicts for whom methadone maintenance treatment has failed.

The Dutch justice ministry announced, last year, the closure of eight prisons and cut 1,200 jobs in the prison system. A decline in crime has left many cells empty. There's simply not enough criminals

Alex P 12 July 2010 - 8:47pm

I also visited Czech Rebulic a few years back with some friends. We went out one night to find clubs riddled with drugs. Thanks for sharing the information.

Hicks 9 June 2010 - 12:45pm

Kathis 10 May 2010 - 7:40pm

I have actually been to Czech Republic last summer and there are a lot of junkies over there and people take drugs really easy. And it's such a pity 

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