Dutch parliament to be lobbied to legalise all 'recreational' drugs

Mon, Jan 24, 2011, 00:00

THE RECENTLY formed Dutch coalition government is expected to be handed a 40,000-signature petition in the next few months aimed at opening a controversial debate in parliament on the legalisation of all so-called recreational drugs.

The petition is being promoted by the Netherlands Drugs Policy Foundation, and has high-profile support from former EU commissioner Fritz Bolkestein and former deputy prime minister and scientist Dr Els Borst-Eilers.

It is a sign of the economic times in the Netherlands that the argument in favour of legalising drugs has moved from one of principled opposition to prohibition to one which highlights potential savings to the state of about €20 billion a year.

According to an open letter to the government from the foundation, published in a number of daily newspapers, crime costs the Dutch taxpayer €31.5 billion a year – of which drug-related crime accounts for at least half, €15.75 billion.

That €15.75 billion breaks down as €924 a year for each Dutch citizen, says the foundation, before the cost of enforcing the ban is included – a massive policing exercise which costs another €1.6 billion a year, before indirect costs.

Is this a bill the Netherlands can afford, the letter asks, when parliament in The Hague will be faced this month with a whole range of politically unpalatable austerity measures aimed at cutting an immediate €30 billion in public spending?

Accepting the foundation’s petition would mean the legalisation of drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines and heroin. If it generates 40,000 signatures, the government will be obliged to place the proposition on its agenda for debate.

“Not alone can the Netherlands not afford the cost of this pernicious prohibition,” maintains Raimond Dufour, retired lawyer and chairman of the Drugs Policy Foundation, “but if the laws were relaxed, the sale of drugs could also be taxed.

“There is also the principle. At the moment, drugs are regulated, but by a mafia, and they make the rules. What we are proposing is that government should make the rules – and that drugs should be regulated by law.”

The Dutch ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam are regarded as two of the most active staging points for international drugs smugglers, importing from countries such as Afghanistan and exporting throughout Europe and further afield.

The drugs underworld here is linked to murder, extortion, corruption, money laundering and, through the illegal arms trade, to international terrorism.

“If drugs were legalised in Holland, that would free up considerable police resources for combating the flow to other countries,” argues Dufour.

“Also, a country where there is no immediate domestic market might seem less attractive to criminals as a location from which to do international business.

“There would be political pressures. The Netherlands would have to use its diplomatic skills, but drugs are a problem in every country and nobody has found a solution. So it could be an interesting experiment for our neighbours – to see if prohibition could be removed without plunging our country into addiction.”

In the Netherlands, although cannabis can be bought and consumed legally in so-called “coffee shops”, drugs crime is big business.

In 2006, three-quarters of police investigations into organised crime were drug- related, while up to one-third of all time spent in prison is as a result of drugs violations.

That is why the debate should not be about the rights and wrong of legalisation, contends Dufour. “It should be about why politicians do not want to save billions and billions of euros, and make drugs as safe as they can be, by legalising – or more correctly regulating – them.”

Regulation, says the foundation, means Dutch citizens over 18 would have the right to buy certain quantities of certain licensed drugs. For instance, so many pills a month.

Those drugs would be produced in the Netherlands by registered pharmacists.

Users would present a chip card – thus limiting availability to Dutch nationals – and the drugs dispensed would be registered. Persuading drug-users to give them up would then become solely a medical issue – and public funding and resources would concentrate on that.

“Users would get the minimum quantity at a very reduced price and of very good quality, which would save lives immediately,” says Dufour. “Those who needed more could get more, under medical supervision. That would make the system of assistance to addicts much easier to handle.”

Will the foundation’s petition achieve its 40,000 signatures?

There are 800,000 regular drug users in the Netherlands, he points out. “Our aim is to begin a public debate. I feel confidant that the Dutch public is much more sophisticated about this issue than its politicians.”