SOBER UP

By Joris Vos

Informed debate and analysis require reliable data and information, so I was disappointed to read Larry Collins' biased, unbalanced, and highly anecdotal article on Dutch drug policy ("Holland's Half-Baked Drug Experiment," May/June 1999). Not only does Collins not compare different types of drug policies and their outcomes, he makes many factual errors. To name a few:

The increase in cannabis use that Collins cites is also present in other European countries, so factors other than Dutch drug policy are obviously relevant. Cannabis use in the United States, for example, is much higher than in the Netherlands.

Collins' assertion that the Netherlands has twice as many heroin addicts as the United Kingdom is wrong. They have comparable rates of heroin use.

Also incorrect is Collins' statement that the percentage of THC (the substance that gives a pot-smoker a high) in the Dutch-grown marijuana known as Nederwiet is as high as 35 percent. The actual figure is 8 percent -- only around 1 percent higher than that of foreign marijuana.

Collins reports an increase in cannabis use among youth in major Dutch cities, from which he infers that the "skyrocketing" rise (for which no figures are provided) in violent crime in those cities is due to increased cannabis use. But it has been scientifically established that cannabis does not evoke aggression, making Collins' linking of both (possibly untrue) observations highly questionable.

The description of slums in Rotterdam and Amsterdam should have included a comparison with such areas in other countries. Although some problems do exist in these places, they pale in comparison to those in the major cities of the Western world.

The drug policy of the Netherlands has evolved over the years with the consent of the Dutch people, who are, for the most part, satisfied with the results. Although our approach may differ from other countries', our goals are the same: reducing drug use and the harm it causes both the user and society. Any sober analysis of Dutch drug policy will reveal both some impressive results and some areas that require more aggressive action. Collins' article was not intended to further serious, responsible debate; it was a simplistic polemic about a problem that surely deserves more informed and factual treatment.

Joris Vos is Ambassador of the Netherlands to the United States.

BENIGN VENEER

By Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

Larry Collins takes a clear-eyed look at the dangerous downside of Holland's drug laws, which have increased crime and addiction within the Netherlands -- and beyond. His article strips away the benign veneer that some attribute to marijuana. Collins should be congratulated for reporting on the tragic ramifications of Holland's loose marijuana laws, which include an increase in the number of Dutch youngsters abusing and addicted to drugs.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr., is Chair and President of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

HUMAN NATURE

By Craig Reinarman and Peter Cohen

Larry Collins asserts that Dutch policies have caused an "explosion" of heroin addiction and juvenile crime and claims that Holland has virtually become a drug-dealing state causing havoc in neighboring countries. But most of Collins' arguments are exaggerated, misleading, or false. Consider the following examples.

Since 1976, the Dutch parliament has supported decriminalization and harm reduction. But Collins does not quote a single Dutch official saying anything positive about Dutch drug policy.

Collins claims that Dutch-grown marijuana is "enormously potent," with a content of THC "as high as 35 percent." He cites studies by the Dutch Trimbos Institute when they appear to support his case -- but not their Drug Monitoring Program's study showing that the average THC content of Dutch pot is 10 percent. Collins also neglects to mention surveys showing that most Dutch users actually prefer the milder strains of marijuana and that those who do smoke the stronger stuff use less of it.

Nor is there much reason to think that the Dutch drug approach has made much more of the population try marijuana. Recent surveys in Amsterdam, where marijuana has long been widely available, found that about 30 percent of the population had tried it; surveys in the United States, where nearly 700,000 arrests were made last year to reduce pot's availability, found that about 35 percent of people in comparably large cities had tried it.

Collins rejects official estimates of drug use in favor of unnamed "critics" who contend that there are 35,000 addicts in the Netherlands. But Collins never expresses this estimate as a rate and compares it to that of other nations. With a population of about 15 million, 35,000 addicts is 1 in 428 Dutch citizens. The U.S. government estimates that there are 750,000 heroin addicts in its population of 265 million, or 1 in 353 Americans. Moreover, a 1998 report by the European Union (EU) Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that the Dutch rate of "problem drug use" was lower than that of most other European countries.

Collins quotes an unnamed French police officer who alleges that an "explosion" of "international trafficking groups" in the Netherlands was caused by "the light sentences" and "liberal attitude" of Dutch judges. But comparable nations with harsh laws and conservative judges giving heavy sentences also have their share of such trafficking groups.

Collins attributes a "skyrocketing growth in juvenile crime" and "acts of violence" to Dutch drug policy, arguing that marijuana use is most prevalent in big cities -- as is violent crime. But correlation is not causation. There is more of every "sin" in every big city, and crime has also increased in countries with harsh drug laws.

Collins argues that the Netherlands' lenient drug policy has made it the "narcotics capital of Europe," as if the French or the Germans would never have found any drugs to use without the Dutch. This is not how humans or markets work. EU data on narcotics seizure show supplies of illicit drugs almost everywhere, and the Dutch share thereof has been stable for a decade.

Drug use among Dutch youth, Collins concludes, looks "remarkably similar to the youth drug scene elsewhere in Europe." He seems to think that this similarity damns Dutch drug policy, but it is really praise. Collins is correct: Dutch drug use is indeed not much different from that of most Western societies, including the United States. The Dutch just have less HIV infection, deaths from overdoses, and imprisonment -- and less of almost every type of drug use.

Globalization is fast creating a multicultural world with multiple moralities and multiple lifestyles. One-size-fits-all drug policies are doomed. The Dutch have a rich history of nonabsolutist problem-solving from which many have learned much. But the Dutch are not proselytizing, claiming that they see drug policy's promised land. Neither should those pushing more punitive approaches.

Craig Reinarman is Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz and Visiting Scholar at the University of Amsterdam's Center for Drug Research. Peter Cohen is Professor of Social Epidemiology at the University of Amsterdam and Director of its Center for Drug Research.

COLLINS REPLIES

The "informed debate and analysis" that Ambassador Vos calls for also requires an accurate reading of the article in question, something which apparently escaped the ambassador in his perusal of "Holland's Half-Baked Drug Experiment."

I did not write that the Netherlands has twice as many heroin addicts as the United Kingdom; I wrote that the Netherlands has twice as many heroin addicts per capita as the United Kingdom, one of the European countries hardest hit by the heroin scourge. That is hardly a tribute to the effectiveness of a drug policy that is now almost a quarter of a century old -- one of the aims of which was to curb hard-drug use.

The statement that the percentage of THC in Nederwiet could rise as high as 35 percent was indeed incorrect. The real figure, as reported by the Dutch Public Prosecutor's Office, is 40 percent. The prosecutor's report goes on to note that "the harmful effects of this variant can therefore be greater than those of hard drugs."

I did not "report" an increase in cannabis use among Dutch youth. I cited, first, statistics compiled by the Dutch Alcohol and Drug Information Center, which showed a 25 percent increase in the number of people asking for help in dealing with a cannabis problem in 1997, and second, J. A. Wallenberg, the director of the Jellinek Clinic and probably the Netherlands' leading expert in the treatment of addiction of all kinds.

The ambassador wants statistics? The Telegraf, an Amsterdam newspaper, published Dutch Ministry of Justice figures on January 29, 1997, showing that the number of juveniles involved in acts of violence had risen 85 percent in a decade. As I wrote, it was senior police officers in Amsterdam and The Hague -- not me -- who attributed much of that growing juvenile crime problem to persistent soft-drug users. This is due not so much to aggressiveness while the user is under the influence of marijuana but rather to the socially disruptive lifestyles that regular and heavy soft-drug use can produce.

There is no sound statistical basis for the ambassador's statement that "the Dutch people are for the most part satisfied with the result" of Dutch drug policy. No nationwide poll or referendum has ever been taken to determine what percentage of the population approves, disapproves, or is indifferent to the Netherlands' drug policy. One referendum of registered voters was taken on the subject in the Dutch-Belgian border town of Hulst -- admittedly a special case, as the community is regularly invaded by Belgian hash smokers. Still, 96 percent of those polled wanted all the community's drug-selling "coffee shops" closed -- hardly a ringing endorsement of the nation's drug policy.

Finally, the ambassador's letter fails to address the principal thrust of the article -- namely, that the Netherlands' tolerant drug policies have turned his charming country into the drug-dealing capital of Europe.

UP IN SMOKE

The letter from Craig Reinarman and Peter Cohen should be considered in the light of Cohen's statements in the Dutch press advocating the legalization of all drugs, including heroin, LSD, and Ecstasy. The Center for Drug Research, with which both authors are affiliated, is an active champion of such a policy.

In view of Reinarman and Cohen's concern for the statistics published by the government-funded Trimbos Institute, they might wish to contemplate this one, published in the institute's January 14, 1999, Hard Drug Policy Paper: "Drug use is considered to be the primary motivation behind crimes against property."

I did not attribute the "skyrocketing growth in juvenile crime" and "acts of violence" to drug use. The police officers in Amsterdam and The Hague who have to deal with the problem did.

Holland's role as the drug-dealing capital of Europe is indisputable, as attested to by the seizures of drugs of every kind pouring out of the country into Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The statistics form far too lengthy a list to print here; to take just one example, consider the 1998 seizure figures of the French Office Central des Stupefiants, which delineate clearly the staggering amounts of heroin, cocaine, and Ecstasy flooding into France from Holland. Three times in the last two months, the police here in the south of France have broken up drug-trafficking gangs that journeyed regularly to Rotterdam to buy heroin in those houses I visited for a quarter or a fifth of what they could sell it for here. Are Reinarman and Cohen aware of the case of Ahmet Erka, who was convicted by the Dutch courts of importing tons of hashish worth millions of guilders into Holland? For that, he did a year and a half in prison -- barely a slap on the wrist that greedily grabbed up all those guilders. That is why Europe's drug dealers prefer to do their business in Holland -- and that is how humans and markets work.

Finally, Reinarman and Cohen are indeed correct to note that the Dutch have often had a "nonabsolutist" approach to social problems from which many have learned much. This is certainly true of their drug policies. Here, the lesson is evident: The Dutch model is not an example to be followed by the United States or the other nations of western Europe. Those who would have us do so are peddling a brand of high-minded, end-of-the-millennium snake oil.

Larry Collins is the coauthor, with Dominique LaPierre, of numerous books including Is Paris Burning?, O Jerusalem!, and Freedom at Midnight.

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