Drugs: Policies should be judged by their results, not by ideology

4 March 2008

Drugs: Policies should be judged by their results, not by ideology

Three Dutch mayors and two Members of Parliament call on their country to make vigorous demands at international level for an effective policy on drugs. The Netherlands, say the five, must play an innovative and tone-setting role in the coming discussions in the UN on a new international drugs policy.

Parliament will devote tomorrow's session to a debate on drugs policy. In June of 1998 the Dutch government, together with other UN member states, declared its intention to eliminate or at least drastically reduce the production of and trade in drugs. Demand must also be forced down, the statement said. This month in Vienna an assessment will be made and in 2009 a new political declaration adopted for future policy on drugs.

What will the Netherlands be arguing for? The government has so far expressed no judgement of the results achieved in the past ten years. Has the market for illegal drugs in 2008 been eliminated or drastically reduced? A rhetorical question. The government states that the results achieved in the last decade should indicate the extent to which the action plans will have to be adjusted. “Measures must be formulated on the basis of the best possible evidence of effectiveness.” An important position! One which means that it should not be purely ideological and (party)-political principles which determine this policy, but instead what should be looked at is what actually works, what leads to results.

The UN debate is of crucial importance to the future of drugs policy. The Netherlands – together with 183 other countries – is party to the three international treaties on drugs and is obliged to attune its policy to these agreements. During the present period countries have the chance to make it clear what policy they wish to follow and what adjustments are needed. The Netherlands is an extremely important actor on this stage. There is an international critique of a number of the Netherlands' choices, but equally a great deal of value is placed on the innovative elements in our drugs policy. The Netherlands' contribution to the coming international debate should, whatever else it does, include the following two points.

Firstly, the Netherlands had dared to experiment with medical and social assistance to addicts, with provision of methadone, of spaces for users, of needle exchanges, and of heroine. All of these are measures which work and which lead to results and which for this reason are being adopted by a growing number of countries. Some countries have outstripped the Netherlands by not following the tolerance policy but adopting legal regulation and thus making explicit choices. Germany, for example, has a law on provision of spaces for users and is nearing the end of a discussion of a law on provision of heroine. It is time that these practices of therapy and harm reduction became central to policy on the international level. Some countries, and the International Narcotics Control Board, the body which oversees the implementation of UN treaties on drugs, claim that these innovative practices are in conflict with these treaties, a point which must be subject to a ruling at UN level in 2009. Foreign Minister Bert Koenders was correct to emphasise on the occasion of World Aids Day “the necessity for harm reduction and the need for an active drugs diplomacy by the Netherlands.” It is now more than ever necessary that the Netherlands demonstrates leadership on this point.

A second point concerns the cannabis policy. After thirty years of toleration it is recognised by everyone that this policy is inconsistent and lacks credibility. It must be made more effective and to this end an international debate must be set in motion. In December a resolution was adopted in which the signatories asked the government to come forward with proposals which can be put on the agenda in the framework of the United Nations evaluation process, known as UNGASS.

The point of departure for this call is the consideration that the present international treaty regime stands in the way of consistent and credible national policy, and not only in the Netherlands, as cannabis is after all produced and traded everywhere and used by more than 170 million of the world's people.

In the simple 1961 treaty on drugs the stipulation was adopted that the use of cannabis for purposes other than medical and scientific ends must be ended within twenty-five years. Now, almost half a century on, the illusion that criminal prosecution can bring the market under control has evaporated. The administrative and judicial burden remains enormous and the authorities lack policy instruments to control quality and THC content in the interest of public health.

A great number of rapports, research studies, resolutions and motions from different countries have called for a change of policy. They have, however, been rejected, just as have proposals here for a regulation of the 'back door', because of the conflict with the international treaties.

No more is being asked of the government than that “on the basis of the best possible evidence of effectiveness” they support and facilitate a debate and, together with other countries, put the subject on the international agenda.

Ruud Vreeman, Mayor of Tilburg
Gerd Leers, Mayor of Maastricht
Job Cohen, Mayor of Amsterdam
Boris van der Ham, Member of Parliament for D66
Krista van Velzen, Member of Parliament for the SP

This article first appeared in the daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad, 4th March 2008

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