Drug use statistics Library Home Home Universiteit van Amsterdam
Reinarman, Craig (1998), Morele ideologie VS haaks op drugsbeleid Nederland. Het Parool, July 30, 1998, p. 8.
© Copyright 1998 Craig Reinarman. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from Craig Reinarman.

[Dutch] [Italian]

Why Dutch drug policy threatens the U.S.

Subtitle

Craig Reinarman

He said it would be a "fact finding tour," but U.S. Drug Czar, General Barry McCaffrey, made it clear before he ever left home that he would bring his own "facts" about Dutch drug policy. He did his best impersonation of a man "listening" during his few hours here, but in the end it was clearly a "fact bringing" tour. Dutch officials and journalists immediately caught him with his evidentiary pants down and chastised him for making false claims about drug use and crime in the Netherlands.

Such slanders are nothing new. A few years ago, McCaffrey's predecessor claimed that all the Dutch youth in Vondel Park were "stoned zombies." An earlier Drug Czar proclaimed "you can't walk down the street in Amsterdam without tripping over junkies." It is said that truth is the first casualty of war, and drug wars are no different.

My Dutch friends and colleagues ask me in astonishment why Drug Czars behave in such a strange manner? U.S. officials are threatened by Dutch drug policy because it cuts against the grain of the moral ideology underlying U.S. drug policy. That ideology runs deep in American culture and politics. The U.S. has a history of hysteria about intoxicating substances dating back to the 19th century Temperance crusade. For over a hundred years, Americans believed that Satan's "demon drink" was the direct cause of poverty, ill health, crime, insanity, and the demise of civilisation. This fundamentalist crusade culminated with national alcohol prohibition in 1919.

Alcohol Prohibition Agents quickly took over the job of creating U.S. drug policy. Without debate, they chose criminalization. A series of antidrug scares since then has led to the criminalization of more drugs and the imprisonment of more drug users for longer terms. What animated each of these scares, from the crusade against alcohol on, was less public health than the politics of fear — fear of change, of "foreigners," of the working class, of non-whites, of rebellious college students, of lost control.

Having scapegoated drugs for so long, U.S. politicians cannot contemplate a "tolerant" system like the Dutch. They compete for votes on the basis of whose rhetoric is "tougher" on drugs. The Right-wing Republicans who control Congress call President Clinton "soft on drugs" even though more drug users are imprisoned now than ever. Clinton appointed McCaffrey Drug Czar not because the General has any training in drugs, but because he was a military man who would symbolize "toughness."

U.S. drug policy has been getting "tougher." The Czar's budget was increased from $1 billion in 1980 to $17 billion this year. The number of drug offenders imprisoned in the U.S. has increased 800% since 1980, helping the U.S. achieve the highest imprisonment rate in the industrialized world — 550 per 100,000 population, compared to the Netherlands' 79 per 100,000. Under the banner of the war on drugs, a kind of creeping totalitarianism tramples more human rights and civil liberties each year: tens of millions of "clean" citizens subjected to supervised urine tests at work; hundreds of thousands searched in their homes or, on the basis of racist "trafficker profiles," at airports or on freeways; possessions seized by the state on suspicion alone. And U.S. school children have been bombarded with more antidrug propaganda than any generation in history.

The results of all this suggest why U.S. officials are lashing out. Their own surveys show that illicit drug use by American youth has increased in five of the last six years. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration admits that hard drugs are just as available, less expensive, and more pure than ever. Hard drug abuse and addiction among the urban poor remain widespread. Some judges have even refused to apply harsh drug laws. Opinion polls now show a majority of Americans do not believe the war on drugs can be won. More and more are voicing their opposition and seeking alternatives to punitive prohibition. The drug policy reform movement in the U.S. is growing larger and more diverse.

And when these pesky heretics argue that there are alternatives to punitive prohibition, one of their key examples is Dutch drug policy. U.S. drug warriors wish the Netherlands example did not exist, but since they cannot make even small countries disappear, they are reduced to making up their own "facts" about it.

Dutch drug policy is a threat to drug warriors precisely because it has NOT led to what McCaffrey called an "unmitigated disaster." Dutch society has its drug problems, of course, but no more and often less than most other modern democracies. In fact, more people have tried cannabis in the U.S. where millions have gone to prison for it than in the Netherlands where citizens may buy it lawfully. The U.S. drug control complex fears Dutch drug policy like the Catholic Church feared Gallileo — they MUST believe the Dutch model is a failure, for if it is not their whole cosmology shatters.

U.S. drug control ideology holds that there is no such thing as use of an illicit drug, only abuse. Drug use patterns in the Netherlands show that for the overwhelming majority of users, drugs are just one more type of genotsmiddelen (food, spice, or intoxicant giving pleasure to the senses) that the Dutch have been importing and culturally domesticating for centuries.

U.S. officials tend to lump all illicit drugs together, as if all were equally dangerous and addictive. Dutch drug policy makes pragmatic distinctions based on relative risks. When U.S. officials are confronted by the scientific evidence that cannabis is among the least risky drugs, they fall back on the claim that it is a "stepping stone" to hard drugs. But here, too, the evidence from Dutch surveys is heresy: despite tolerant policies and ready availability, most Dutch people never try cannabis, and most who do try it don't continue to use even cannabis very often, much less harder drugs. In short, the Dutch facts are a Drug Czar's nightmare.

Leaders more secure about the effectiveness and fairness of their own drug policies would feel less need to attack Dutch drug policy. Dutch officials do not proselytize, urging other nations to adopt their methods, and the U.S. is obviously not obliged to adopt any part of the Dutch approach. By the same logic, the U.S. should realize that other societies do not share its phobias and do not appreciate its tendency toward drug policy imperialism — particularly when what the U.S. offers is repressive, expensive failure.

We inhabit an increasingly multi-cultural world, which is also a multi-lifestyle and multi-morality world. Drug policy, therefore, cannot be as simple as stretch socks — "one size fits all." Neither European integration nor globalized markets erase differences in language, culture, behavior, or politics. Thus, a cookie cutter approach in which each nation's drug policy is identical — whether punitive prohibition or any other model — makes no sense. Dutch drug policy has bravely broadened the range of possibilities to examine, which is as useful for those who want to learn something as it is fearful for those who do not.


Dr. Reinarman is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Visiting Scholar at the Centrum voor Drugsonderzoek at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. His most recent book is Crack In America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice, with Harry G. Levine.

Last update: May 25, 2016