Ending drug prohibition: the ultimate austerity measure

By Frits Bolkestein c.s.

The ban on recreational drugs promotes crime and is bad for public health.

Austerity measures to cut public spending are a hot topic for debate everywhere in Europe. In the Netherlands, where a new parliament will be elected next month, several proposals to reduce spending by 30 billion euros are on the table. All of these proposals hit where it hurts, but one option could actually be a welcome relief: drug regulation. By 'regulation', we mean: permitting the production and sale of drugs under strict conditions designed to minimise use, while making it as safe as possible.

Regulation, however, remains a colossal taboo, even in the Netherlands. And in spite of the Dutch cabinet's pledge that no subject would be taboo in its review of potential austerity measures, a government committee charged with studying possible cutbacks in the security sphere has barely dared broach the subject. It has only considered further regulating the less harmful drugs, marijuana and hashish, which could – under certain assumptions - save 183 million euros now spent on law enforcement and other government efforts, and generate 260 million in taxes. The committee said nothing of other drugs.

Recreational drugs were made illegal in the Netherlands 40 years ago. But they are used more frequently than ever, and there are no indications whatsoever that prohibition is effective. It is absolutely certain, though, that prohibition is causing extensive damage, the extent of which has barely registered with the public. At least half of all crime in this country is caused by drugs, either directly or indirectly.

Recent data from the Dutch justice department show that 27 to 33 percent of all years spent in incarceration are the result of violations of the law banning recreational drugs. In 2006, three quarters of the more than 300 investigations of organised crime focused on the production of, or trade in, drugs.

These statistics are limited to direct violations of Dutch drug laws and pertain to dealers and drug runners, frequent offenders, the cultivation of marijuana in homes and sheds, drug mules, ecstasy labs and export and import. Indirect crimes come on top of that: bribery, threats, corruption, money laundering and the subsequent tainting of legitimate industries like real estate, retaliatory violence between drug gangs, the use of drug money to finance the illegal arms trade. And let's not even begin to mention the international consequences, which include the disruption of entire countries.

These facts, unheard of in both senses of the word, are absent in the drug debate, as they are, just as surprisingly, in the security debate. Everyone worried about security would do well to consider an alternative to the current ban on recreational drugs. Amazingly enough, though, prohibition's biggest proponents are avid crime fighters. Can't they see they are effectively serving as key support to the drug mob?

Could things be better? Certainly, and that is a proven fact. The 30-year Dutch experiment of selling marijuana in so-called coffee shops is unique. Regulation of this drug has not lead to increased use of marijuana or other drugs. The use of, and addiction to, all types of recreational drugs in the Netherlands lie near or below the European average, and far below the levels common in repressive countries like France, England or the US. Coffee shops have also ensured that hundreds of thousands of cannabis consumers have never acquired criminal records, or seen their driver's licenses revoked, as is common practice elsewhere.

This proves prohibition is unnecessary. We can do without this unusual measure introduced to protect citizens against themselves – quite the anomaly in criminal law. Regulation works.

Drug crime can be prevented. Any problems caused by regulation pale in comparison to the advantages this incredible breakthrough would offer. Take coffee shops, for instance, which have caused trouble in Dutch border areas. The city of Venlo has effectively solved these problems by moving some coffee shops to the outskirts of town, close to the German border.

To draw coffee shops out of the criminal sphere entirely, the cultivation of marijuana needs to be regulated. Dutch municipalities can't wait to do so. The Dutch parliament has twice accepted a motion along these lines. As far as other drugs are concerned, pilot regulation projects need to be set up, carefully but resolutely, for cocaine, XTC, amphetamines and heroine in particular. Proposals to that extent have already been drafted.

Are international drug treaties an obstacle? No. Legally it can be argued that they allow for regulation. But the simplest solution would be to introduce regulation by simply choosing not to prosecute offenders who meet certain, specified, conditions. Our country has always reserved that right.

What about foreign opposition? If pilot projects were limited to Dutch citizens, European resistance would not be insurmountable. Skilful diplomatic manoeuvring could even pique other countries' interest. After all, the problem is the same here as elsewhere. US president Barack Obama has declared he will be forging new drug policy based on pragmatic rather than ideological grounds. The international political climate seems unusually favourable.

As soon as the domestic drug market has been regulated, drug gangs will no longer be able to make a penny. Law enforcement will have a lot less work on its hands. Society will become significantly safer and will benefit from a great reduction in costs. According to data collected by a Dutch government research agency, the total cost of crime added up to 31.5 billion euros in 2006 alone. Crimes that are a result of drug prohibition cost society at least half that amount, or 15.75 billion euros. That comes down to 924 euros per Dutch citizen annually. Professor Henk Rigter, who teaches at Rotterdam's Erasmus University, has estimated that enforcing the ban on recreational drugs costs approximately 1.6 billion euros in 2003. Indirect costs of enforcement have yet to be factored into that number. Also, if laws are relaxed, drugs could be taxed. Drug regulation offers a formidable opportunity for cost cutting.

Public health would also be better served. By putting a stop to the illegal market, the young in particular would be better protected. The quality of drugs would be guaranteed, they would come with information leaflets and public awareness campaigns would become more credible.

Drugs will not disappear simply because they are illegal. They will always be around. A minority of users will get into trouble. Drugs are far less dangerous, however, than alcohol and tobacco. Our country is home to 13 times more alcoholics than drug addicts, and alcohol claims 15 times more lives than drugs do. Tobacco costs 333 times as many lives. Because drugs can be dangerous to people's health, regulation will remain necessary. Drug crime, on the other hand, is something we can do without.

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