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Friday 19 December  
Opium use on the island of Java, Indonesia
John Tyler's picture
The Hague, Netherlands
The Hague, Netherlands

One hundred years of the war on drugs

Published on : 23 January 2012 - 11:45am | By John Tyler (Photo: Tropical Museum)
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One hundred years ago today, the war on drugs started in The Hague. On 23 January 1912, twelve countries met to sign the first international agreement regulating the drug trade, the International Opium Convention. Little has changed in those hundred years; the United States still aggressively pursues a policy of prohibition, while the Dutch still prefer to regulate drug use.

Marcel de Kort, author of a history of drug policy in the Netherlands, says this country was never keen on using repressive measures.

"[The Dutch] always had their doubts about the international approach of prohibition. Already in the 1920s they called the US approach 'destructive idealism.' "

Profit motive
At the time of the opium convention, Dutch doubts about prohibition were fueled by money. The international drug trade was big business. The trade in opium and morphine had been steadily expanding during the second half of the 19th century. Germany, the United Kingdom and France were all profiting - but none held a candle to the Netherlands.

Plantations on Java gave the Dutch East India company a commanding position in the market, and they reported a profit of 26 million guilders from opium in 1914 before the convention had taken effect.* Cocaine also proved to be a lucrative business for at least one Dutch company which sold the drug to both sides during World War I.

So if the drug trade was such good business, why did the Netherlands host the 1912 convention in the first place? Marcel Kort says the Dutch decided 'if you can’t beat them, join them.' Active participation in what was considered an unwelcome but inevitable development would do more to help protect Dutch economic interests than more stalling.

Delaying tactics
The Hague almost missed out. The United States, backed by China, had been trying for three years to get the major players to agree to a treaty, but European powers kept putting it off. An American physician - the main force behind the convention - finally had enough. Upon hearing of yet another delay, the doctor tracked down the vacationing Dutch ambassador in a remote area in the state of Maine and sternly instructed him to set a date for the convention. Otherwise, the doctor threatened, he'd organise the event himself in Washington, DC. The plan worked and after six weeks of face-to-face haggling, the first international treaty regulating drugs was signed in the Netherlands.

Turning point
The Netherlands and other European powers did manage to water down the 1912 convention, keeping the emphasis on regulating trade, rather than prohibiting drug use altogether. The deal covered four drugs - opium, morphine, cocaine and heroin. It did not regulate synthetic drugs, thanks to lobbying by the German-dominated pharmaceutical industry.

Implementation of the agreement was stalled until after World War I, but then it was included in the Treaty Of Versailles that ended the war. This mean that, in one fell swoop, 60 countries were bound by the convention rather than just the original 13.

In addition to regulating international trade, the convention also required all signatories to pass domestic legislation controlling drug use.

One hundred years of bickering
The diplomatic bickering about regulation versus prohibition which began with the 1912 convention negotiations has continued ever since. The United States walked out of a 1925 conference on the grounds that it wouldn’t be tough enough, and it wasn’t until 1961 that the US finally succeeded in pushing through a more prohibitive treaty.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, established in 1997, adopted the zero-tolerance policy favoured by the United States. Dutch drugs policy today is still slanted towards regulation, but a number of measures have been adopted recently which tend more towards prohibition.

Ironically, as the Netherlands seems to be backpedalling on its liberal approach, a number of other countries are turning to policies which deal with drug-use as a public health and social welfare problem rather than a criminal one. And an increasingly loud chorus of voices from the scientific, political and social spheres are declaring that the war on drugs has been lost and it's time zero-tolerance was traded in for tolerance-under-strict-conditions.

* figure from Economic Histories of the Opium Trade, by Siddharth Chandra, University of Pittsburgh

To read more about the history of drug control, check out the Transnational Institute's article, The development of international drug control.



Max Harmreduction 24 January 2012 - 5:06am

It seems strange to see histories of Dutch drugs policies that do not mention the aim of coffeeshop policy and what this has given to Dutch citizens. Dutch Foreign Affairs ( has another FAQ on drugs. It says the aim of coffeeshops is to protect cannabis users, especially youngsters, from also experimenting with drugs like heroin and the organised criminal suppliers. There is a documentary on this: "Cannabis Rising" in which the Professor who works on the statistics shows the old green screen computer presentation indicating overall heroin experimentation came to a halt shortly after the start of coffeeshops. There is also data on needle exchange and drug services that show demand declining by 10% to 15% and average age increasing nearly a year every year for decades. Secondary School Student Surveys in Amsterdam show around 0.1% had ever-tried-heroin - Australian surveys show that figure as 6% in one and 7% in the other; about 100 times greater! The cutting edge of drugs treatment in Amsterdam is geriatric services for those ageing addicts. We had 1200 fatal overdoses the same year you had 42. Causality is extremely hard to prove but this wide range of data is about as compelling as it gets. Coffeeshops are Primary Prevention against young people experimenting with drugs like heroin and injecting. BRAVO! Max Harmreduction

Jillian Galloway 23 January 2012 - 11:01pm / U.S.

Has not a single one of our (U.S.) federal officials traveled to The Netherlands and observed that the coffeeshops are NO BIG DEAL? The federal marijuana prohibition is BAD law that makes kids LESS safe!

States that have passed medical marijuana laws have seen a 9% drop in alcohol-related traffic fatalities. We can save a LOT of lives by giving people the right to substitute marijuana for alcohol.

Marijuana has repeatedly been proven to NOT cause cancer, heart disease, brain damage, liver disease, emphysema, or any other significant health issue, and its addiction potential is about on par with coffee. We mustn't wait until a loved one has been harmed by alcohol before demanding that our legislators legalize adult marijuana sales!

Anonymous 23 January 2012 - 5:10pm

One can better play the clarinet than suck on an opium pipe.

Anonymous 23 January 2012 - 5:06pm

A war with no end in sight.

malcolm kyle 23 January 2012 - 3:56pm / United States

While bullets fly into El Paso, bodies pile up in the streets of Juarez, and thugs with gold-plated AK-47s and albino tiger pens are beheading federal officials and dissolving their torsos in vats of acid, here are some facts concerning the peaceful situation in Holland. --Please save a copy and use it as a reference when debating prohibitionists who claim the exact opposite concerning reality as presented here below:

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 last 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 marijuana-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 to 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 is a very recent article by a psychiatrist from Amsterdam, exposing Drug Czar misinformation

The Dutch justice ministry announced, in May 2009, 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

For further information, kindly check out this very informative FAQ provided by Radio Netherlands:
or go to this page:

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