EU Parliament member knocks Dutch cannabis policy (in English)

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January 10th, 2011 | 17:53
Door webmaster

Op 8 december 2010 organiseerde ENCOD en de Griekse Groenen een hoorzitting over regulering van cannabis in het Europees Parlement in Brussel. Niet alleen was dit de eerste keer dat een coffeeshophouder -Marc Josemans van Easy Going in Maastricht- in het Europees Parlement sprak, er was ook een boeiende presentatie van Europarlementariër Dennis de Jong (SP) over het snel veranderende Nederlandse cannabisbeleid.

Public hearing on drug reform and cannabis regulation, EU Parliament Brussels, December 8, 2010 (© Gonzo media)

Public hearing on drug reform and cannabis regulation, EU Parliament Brussels, December 8, 2010 (© Gonzo media)

On December 8th, 2010, ENCOD and Greek party Greens / EFA organised a public hearing on regulation of cannabis in the European Parliament in Brussels. Not only was this the first time ever that a coffeeshop owner -Marc Josemans of Easy Going in Maastricht- spoke in the European Parliament, there was also a thought provoking presentation by the Dutch member of the EU Parliament Dennis de Jong (Socialist Party) on the rapidly changing Dutch cannabis policy. The full text is reproduced below.

Click here to read more about the hearing on the ENCOD website (includes video).

EU Parliament member Dennis de Jong on Dutch cannabis policy:

‘What annoys me most is that all these measures lack any kind of vision’

Dennis de Jong speaking at the hearing (© Gonzo media)

Dennis de Jong speaking at the hearing (© Gonzo media)

“You might expect somebody from the Netherlands to come up with a very positive message. I think I’m going to disappoint you a bit. But I always end optimistic and shall do so today as well.

For decades the Netherlands have been the outsider in Europe when it comes to drug policy. The main features are well known: the law is not much different from other member states, the production and use of drugs is punishable by law. But the office of the public prosecutor refrains from prosecuting -under specific conditions- the consumption and sale of cannabis. To be quite clear: the production of cannabis does not normally come under this exception.

It looks as if step by step the by now traditional Dutch policies are changing. You might have expected a move -talk about change- towards more liberalisation, if only to relieve the police and the judiciary, especially in view of the present budgettary cuts. The situation for the police in the Netherlands is dire. The police is not exempted from these budget policies of the current Dutch government and many local police forces are facing a reduction of the number policemen who can be out on the street. Many policemen are complaining already that they do not have enough time to be out there, due to all the paper work they have to do nowadays.

Beeld: ENCOD

Beeld: ENCOD

Thus there is every reason to relieve the police, and also the judiciary of the enormous loads of drug related cases, especially as far as they concern cannabis. The reality however, is much different: the trend is clearly towards more repression and so towards more unnecessary work for the police. Let me give you first a few concrete examples of this trend. A focal point at the moment: in the south of the Netherlands, in and near the city of Eindhoven, organised crime related to the production of cannabis is strong and violent. The mayor of Helmond, one of the towns near that city, had to go into hiding, because of the many personal threats originating in these criminal groups.

The reason why organised crime is so interested in cannabis is because on the one hand the production isn’t regulated, so the coffeeshops and others have to rely on illegal sources and on the other hand because the penalties if they get caught are less high when the production concerns softdrugs than in the case of harddrugs.

As a general reaction to these developments in Eindhoven and Helmond you would have expected a debate on the half-heartedness of our policies and the need for some type of regulation of the production of cannabis, thus depriving organised crime from a wonderful market. But no, the reaction was that we need to further toughen up the existing policies. This way, by introducing membership cards so that only those who have a valid membership card will be allowed to buy cannabis in the existing coffeeshops.

Dennis de Jong and Richard Cowan, former director of NORML (© Gonzo media)

Dennis de Jong and Richard Cowan, former director of NORML (© Gonzo media)

This however is not the only restrictive measure taken in the past years. Other towns in the south of the Netherlands, such as Bergen op Zoom and Roosendaal, have closed down all their coffeeshops, because they could no longer tolerate the trouble caused by drugs tourists. The same happened in a town in Zeeland, near the Belgian border. There are more measures being taken. For example in the city where I live, Rotterdam. Last years the municipality closed all the coffeeshops that are located within 250 meters walking distance from schools. The national government thinks this a great idea and considers introducing a similar rule at national level.

Coffeeshops who have found to sell drugs to users under the age of 18 will also be closed immediately. All the rules are applied more strictly: coffeeshops are not allowed to have more than 500 grams of cannabis in store and they may not sell more than five grams to a customer. Violations of these rules are also followed by closure of the coffeeshop. So on one hand you see closing down of the coffeeshops is taking place regularly on the basis of all sorts of criteria and no licenses are given to open up new coffeeshops.

Dennis de Jong talking to Dana Spinant, head of the EU anti-drug policy coordination unit, after the hearing (© Gonzo media)

Dennis de Jong talking to Dana Spinant, head of the EU anti-drug policy coordination unit, after the hearing (© Gonzo media)

As you can see, theoretically the Netherlands are still different from the rest of Europe, but the net around the coffeeshops is gradually closing in. But not only the coffeeshops are targeted, also the users of cannabis are increasingly under attack. The organizers of many parties already carry a zero tolerance policy concerning drugs and no longer make a distinction between hard and softdrugs. Employers, such as the ministry of defense, but also more generally, are allowed to require from their personnel that they do not use drugs and may introduce compulsory testing. Governments and municipal councils are now also talking about introducing drug tests at schools.

Finally, soon a measure will be introduced allowing the police to collect phlegm samples from drivers. If they test positive, this means they can be fined. It’s not clear yet how the police will deal with this, since the phlegm test itself is not reliable enough, so people who are testing positive will have to go to the police station to have their blood tested. This will bring about an immense increase of the workload of the police force at a time when they need less work, instead of more.

Making the case for regulation: Joep Oomen (ENCOD, VOC) talking to Dina Spinant (© Gonzo media)

Making the case for regulation: Joep Oomen (ENCOD, VOC) talking to Dina Spinant of the European Commission (© Gonzo media)

Especially this final measure may well prove to be quite burdensome for those who use cannabis on a regular basis. It’s well known that traces of cannabis can be found many days after consumption, which means that many people will test positive, even if they are completely capable of driving, as they used cannabis the day or many days before. In fact, the measure makes it impossible to use cannabis if you want to avoid problems with the police, unless you do not intend to drive in the near future.

What annoys me most is that all these measures lack any kind of vision. It starts with the coffeeshops. Whereas under certain conditions selling cannabis is not prosecuted, the owners of these establishments are violating the law if they buy cannabis. The government has no control over the production of cannabis, as it is illegal, and so gradually the production of cannabis is no longer a matter for local small scale homegrowers, but has become an interesting market for organised crime. This doesn’t mean however that organised crime favours the existence of coffeeshops. In the town of Helmond, which I mentioned before, the threats and violence were not only directed towards the authorities, but also towards a new coffeeshop.

'Green Ambassador' and VOC-activist Darpan filimg the hearing (© Gonzo media)

'Green Ambassador' and VOC-activist Darpan filming the hearing (© Gonzo media)

For organised crime, repressive policies are a blessing: they can charge higher prices on a purely illegal market than on one that is partly regulated via the coffeeshops. The authorities use the general fear by ordinary citizens of violence and crime for introducing ever stiffer measures. They refuse to consider the regulation of production of cannabis, thus creating a fine market for organized crime and subsequently use the existence of such forms of organized crime as an excuse to close down coffeeshops and for other measures, making the life of the cannabis user ever more difficult.

In my opinion, a good argument for stiffer policies would be that the consumption of cannabis is increasing. But the figures issued by the European Drugs Agency show that this is not the case. On the contrary: during the past ten years the prevalence of cannabis use among young adults has remained stable at about 10 % in the Netherlands. Much lower than in a country like France, which is known for its strictly repressive policy.

Martin Barriuso, president of the Spanish Confederation of Cannabis Organisations and Marc Josemans, owner of coffeeshop Easy Going in Maastricht (© Gonzo media)

Martin Barriuso (left), president of the Spanish Confederation of Cannabis Organisations and Marc Josemans, owner of coffeeshop Easy Going in Maastricht (© Gonzo media)

Another argument that’s often heard is the drugs tourism that our coffeeshops bring with them. Yes it’s true that in some towns near the border the amount of foreign customers is huge. And yes, these customers do park their cars near the coffeeshops, which sometimes leads to traffic jams and lack of parking space. But is that a good enough reason to close coffeeshops altogether or to introduce a membership card system, thus excluding people from other member states?

Let’s compare this with other commodities. Did you ever hear complaints from mayors because the local shops attract many customers from abroad? Did you hear them talk about the congestion that these foreign shoppers cause or about the lack of parking spaces? On the contrary: the more customers, the more licences are being issued for big car parks to accomodate them. And the European Union welcomes this, as it shows how vibrant the internal market is.

Left to right: Dana Spinant, Martin Barriuso and Marc Josemans (© Gonzo media)

Left to right: Dana Spinant, Martin Barriuso and Marc Josemans (© Gonzo media)

But no such sounds from Brussels when it comes to softdrugs. No internal market here. Of course, if we do not formally legalize cannabis, the government can not collect taxes and the net profit of coffeeshops remains for the owner. At most, these coffeeshops create some employment, but since the European institutions remain ever so stubborn concerning drugs, any of the standard internal market arguments are not applicable.

Apart from some unnecessary muscle flexing by a number of Dutch political parties, I think that in the background Brussels does play a major role in making the Dutch policies ever more restrictive. Neighboring countries like Belgium are very eager to criticize the Dutch policies. They’re concerned that their citizines will use more cannabis, only because they can get it in the Netherlands. Also the production of cannabis is strongly increasing in Belgium and again, the Netherlands policies are blamed for this trend. Criticisms are not however limited to a neighboring country like Belgium, also other member states like France have often criticized the Netherlands.

Dana Spinant, head of the anti-drug policy coordination unit of the European Commission (© Gonzo media)

Dana Spinant, head of the anti-drug policy coordination unit of the European Commission (© Gonzo media)

For me, it’s impossible to understand why the European Institutions and most member state governments are so short-sighted. Last year we discussed here the Trautmann Report. It was commissioned by the European Commission itself and shows quite clearly that repressive policies simply do not work. I remember that the representative of the European Commission then seemed impressed with these findings and promised us that they would be incorporated in the Commission’s policies. But when I later asked the Commission formally to acknowledge that it will use the conclusions of the Trautmann Report for its policy making, it remained silent and actually non-committing.

What we need in the field of drugs policies is vision and leadership. Many national governments are trapped in their own argumentation. They want to look tough and fight drugs, since that’s what they think the electorate wants to hear. But I’m convinced that in the end the politicians who, on the basis of academic reports make the argument for legalizing softdrugs, will get more respect from the citizens than those who simply repeat what others have said before them.

In this respect I do think that there’s a role for the European Union. The Dutch Socialist Party, which I represent in this Parliament, has always been against harmonisation of drugs policies, since we were and still are afraid that what our traditionally liberal policies in the Netherlands will have to be abolished if the EU is going to play a role here. However, we’re now facing the situation that this month the European Court of Justice will have to rule on the lawfullness of the proposed membership card system for coffeeshops.

Martin Barriuso, president of the Confederation of Cannabis Organisations, Spain (© Gonzo media)

Martin Barriuso, president of the Confederation of Cannabis Organisations, Spain (© Gonzo media)

In that sense, the tables are turned: we now have to rely on a European institution to counteract measures that are coming from the Netherlands government. Hopefully the Court will establish that the membership card system is discriminatory as it makes a distinction between Dutch and other consumers. Even such a ruling may only bring temporary relief though, since the next step may well be that municipalities allow only local residents to obtain a membership card. This means that if you do not have within your own municipality a coffeeshop, you have to turn to the illegal market or have to rely on friends who happen to live in a town where they do have a coffeeshop and where you can get a membership card with a resident of that town.

I still have hesitations concerning the role of the European Commission. Once again I had to submit written questions concerning the Civil Society Forum, which the Commission created to obtain advice on effective drugs policies. I notice that voices from Civil Society in favour of legalization are seldom heard. It’s unclear altogether what the practical effect of that Forum is at the moment.

I therefore would like to conclude with yet another call on the European Commission.
I do not want you to take any steps towards harmonisation, I do not see the need for policies concerning drugs use to be part of European legislation, as the emphasis in this area is on health. And health policies are certainly not a competence with the European Commission.

However, the European Commission is competent in the field of drugs trafficking by criminal groups. And now that in the Trautmann Report it’s clearly established that repressive policies do not work and considering that the figures of the Drugs Agency also state that the consumption of drugs in the Netherlands is less of a problem than elsewhere in Europe, I hope that the Commission will be brave and will communicate this message to the member states.

Joep Oomen (ENCOD & VOC) making the case for regulation at the European Parliament (© Gonzo media)

Joep Oomen (ENCOD & VOC) making the case for regulation at the European Parliament (© Gonzo media)

I’m convinced that only if in other European countries liberalisation policies become less of a taboo than they are nowadays, can the pressure on the Netherlands government decrease to fall into the same trap as other member states have done. The trap that for the sake of looking tough in fact we are putting the health of our citizens at risk. The trap that by taking ever more measures aimed at  criminalisation of the use of cannabis, we are serving the interests of organized crime. And the trap that the use of cannabis and other more dangerous drugs will soon start to increase in the Netherlands, like in the other member states.

For me and for my party it’s strange to admit that we may actually need the help of the Commission to keep the policies that were so successful since the 1970’s in tact. If only I could trust the Commission. Thank you.”

De VOC Blog

Welkom bij het VOC, dé koepel van alle organisaties en individuen in Nederland die gekant zijn tegen het verbod op cannabis. Repressie is dure en contraproductieve symboolpolitiek. Wereldwijd vindt het Nederlandse beleid van decriminalisering steeds meer weerklank. Het is tijd voor de volgende stap: cannabis uit de strafwet.