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15/08/2007 00:00:00

Dealing with drugs the Dutch way

The Netherlands is unique not only in its liberal approach to
recreational drug use, but also in its preventive measures. Editor
Natasha Gunn speaks to the experts and asks why users of the country's
number one drug are getting younger and what is being done about it.

The number one drug used in the Netherlands is alcohol and what is
worrying is that consumers are getting younger.

“Alcohol use starts at between 11 and 14, and between the ages of 13 and
16 pupils start to drink on a weekly basis,” says Roel Kerssemakers,
senior prevention worker at the Jellinek, an institute for the treatment
of alcohol, drug and gambling problems, serving Amsterdam, Gooi and

“If you compare alcohol with cannabis and look at pupils of 16 years you
can say that 77 percent used alcohol last month, while 15.6 percent used
cannabis,” he says.

According to a report from the European Monitoring Centre of Drugs and
Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), between 1997 and 2005, the use of alcohol in
the young and very young has increased, whereas the percentage last year
of users of cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines remained fairly stable
among the general population in the Netherlands of 15 - 64 years.

Audray Wijks, a prevention worker at the Parnassia, which works on drug
prevention and care in The Hague, Delft, Gouda, Leiden and Zoetermeer,
believes that individualism, a loss of both control and social
communities is to blame for the increase in alcohol consumption in the

“The world is faster and harder, which means you need to be tough to go
with the flow. People have access via computers to a ‘virtual’ life and
parents have less control over their children’s ‘actual’ lives,” says
Wijks, who also sees the breakdown of family networks as a contributing

How the Dutch are tackling the issue

Addressing the issue, this year the Netherlands caught up with the
majority of EU countries through proposing a partial or complete ban on
alcohol advertising on radio and TV before 9 pm. Also, in June the Dutch
cabinet agreed to a proposal to allow municipalities to decide whether
to increase the drinking age for ‘weak’ alcoholic drinks from 16 to 18
and the government is looking into penalising underage individuals for
buying alcohol or being in possession of it. Under current legislation
only the shop and café owners can be prosecuted.

After alcohol, Cannabis is still the number one drug of choice in the
Netherlands, followed by XTC.

Although the age when school-goers start using cannabis was stable
between 1996 and 2003 and lies between 14 and 16, Kerssemakers says that
the “General opinion about cannabis and the risks involved are more
realistic now. Cannabis has risks: there is a risk of addiction and
smoking is bad for your lungs. Now there is a lot of information about
the risks which are also addressed in drug education.”

This awareness is perhaps reflected by an increase in the numbers of
young people seeking help to deal with cannabis addiction. Parents and
children also need to be aware that Dutch cannabis (nederwiet) is
getting stronger, says Wijks.

Studies have shown nederwiet to have between 14 and 20 times more
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - the active ingredient which makes users
high - than imported varieties. The average THC concentration in Dutch
home-grown cannabis peaked in 2003 (20 percent) and levelled off in 2004
and 2005 (18 percent in both years).

“Of school goers between 12 and 18, 9 percent said they used cannabis
last month. Of the same group, 20 percent, which is almost 2 percent of
the total group, smokes more than 10 times a month,” says Kerssemakers.

The Netherlands compared to other countries

The number of problematic long-term users of
heroine/cocaine/crack/amphetamines per 1000 inhabitants in the
Netherlands is 2.2 to 4.3. In the UK the figures are 8.9 to 9.7, Spain:
7.1 to 9.9, Austria: 5.4 to 6.1, Sweden 4.5 (Sweden has a high
percentage of amphetamine users), France: 3.8 to 4.8, and Germany: 1.2
to 3.0.

Of the Dutch population aged 15 to 64, 3.3 percent used cannabis last
month, reveals Kerssemakers. “If you compare this figure with other
countries you see that in Spain 8 percent of the population between 15
and 64 used cannabis last month, in Austria 4 percent of the same
population, in Ireland 3 percent, in Belgium 3 percent, in Norway and
Finland 2 percent, and in the US 10 to 14 percent,” he says.

"In the same population (15 - 64), 0.3 percent used XTC last month, and
among pupils aged between 12 and 18, 1.2 percent used XTC last month.
When asked ‘did you use XTC last night’, 8.2 percent of the clubbers
said ‘yes’," reports Kerssemakers.

Netherlands main producer of XTC

It is estimated that about 70 percent of the confiscated ecstasy-tablets
in the world are produced in the Netherlands: that is between 112 and
224 million tablets. The organisation of the trafficking of amphetamines
and XTC within Europe is controlled by Dutch criminal organisations, in
collaboration with criminal organisations in the destination countries
(Huisman 2005).

Making informed choices

Key to the lower drug usage figures in the Netherlands is perhaps the
preventive methods employed by the Dutch.

The Netherlands has chosen the skill-oriented method to educate people
about drug usage, an approach which involves making choices, solving
conflicts and employing resilience; such as dealing with emotions and
resisting group pressure.

This approach has proved to be the most effective says Kerssemakers. “We
inform people in a neutral and objective way about the risks, based on
scientific facts and not on all kind of prejudices. Also we accept that
people have to make their own choices,” he says.

The other preventive methods are fear-oriented (warning) and
objective-oriented (giving the facts).

The legal side

The sale of cannabis is illegal, yet the Dutch turn a blind eye to
coffee shops selling cannabis, if they adhere to certain criteria: no
advertising, no sale of hard drugs, no sales to persons under 18, no
causing of public nuisance and no sales of quantities of more than five
grams per transaction. Coffee shops are also forbidden to sell alcohol
or have more than 500 grams in stock and -in some cities- a minimum
distance to a school or to the Dutch border is required.

“The difference between using and dealing has to do with the quantity of
drugs you possess. If you have less than 5 grams of cannabis, 1/2 a gram
of hard drugs or one tablet, you have a quantity which is considered as
a quantity for own use. If you possess more than that you are considered
a dealer,” says Kerssemakers.

Will ‘magic’ mushrooms be banned?

Rather than outlawing mushrooms Kerssemakers predicts that the
government will shortly outline a new policy, which will involve
introducing new rules for smartshops such as making it illegal to sell
mushrooms people under 18, making it obligatory for the people working
in smartshops to follow a course, and obliging the outlets to give good
information about the products they sell.

Drug-testing services don’t encourage use

Both Kerssemakers and Wijks confirm that drug testing services, such as
those offered by the Jellinek and Parnassia, inform people as well as
help keep track of the kinds of drugs being offered on the market. The
existence of the service also perturbs producers from releasing
dangerous substances onto the market.

Kerssemakers reports that in 2006, 80 percent of the tablets tested at
the Jellinek contained XTC, while 6.7 percent of the tablets contained a
completely different psychoactive substance. The average dose was 74 mg.

More information

Useful links to websites with information on drugs and addiction in English:

Report on the Drug Situation 2006 written for the European Monitoring
Centre of Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). (in PDF-format)

Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction

Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports

Ministry of Justice

Jellinek Addiction Care Amsterdam
Reducing risks – Cannabis
Reducing risks - Magic mushrooms

Centre for Drug Research, University of Amsterdam

Municipal Health Service of Amsterdam

Statistics Netherlands

HIV Monitoring Foundation (HMF)

Author: Expatica via UKCIA

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