by Riccado Aulico
After 1976, the sale and consumption of soft drugs was decriminalized in The Netherlands. The “free joint” became one of the best-known elements of the country and, in particular, of its capital: even today, 42 years later, the coffeeshop is synonymous with Amsterdam.
Although hard to believe nowadays, this was not always the case: before that pioneer experiment of tolerance policy, the Dutch police hunted cannabis users exactly as they do almost everywhere around the world.
August de Loor, “street-corner worker” and activist, lived the time of transition from prohibition to semi-legalization: “Until the 1960s, the consumption of soft drugs in the capital was widespread, but was kept by the users pretty low-profile; it was limited to sailors and circles of artists and intellectuals,” he tells 31mag.
In the ’70s, the situation changed radically: in the university environment, use of “party drugs” such as LSD and amphetamine was widespread and cannabis became a symbol of rebellion to the status quo.
The reaction of the social and political structure was quick and harsh: in the late 1960s, even in the Netherlands, chasing for drug users became a priority. In the name of the Opium Act, explains de Loor, the law that prohibits the use and production of drugs in the Netherlands since the 1930s, the central government and the institutions tried to regain control of the situation.
“The reaction of the government was sparked by fear,” tells de Loor: “Arrests were made every day, the parks were patrolled and smoking cannabis became virtually impossible in public spaces. In addition, rehab centres for alcoholics were converted into rehab for cannabis users. If you were arrested and ended up in court for marijuana detention, you were forced to a mandatory “recovery” program at a health facility. “The sanitary-repressive approach took shape in a socio-rehabilitative therapy of at least 6 weeks.
August de Loor, now part of the non-governmental organisation Adviesburo Drugs (an NGO monitoring drugs consumption), was part of the movement that in the late 1960s called for a stop to criminalise consumers and to introduce reasonable policies on soft drugs: “We founded newspapers and alternative radios and we joined forces with professionals and people of the scientific world to raise our profile”.
The movement grew quickly and in the early 1970s it succeeded in gaining a greater pressure on the decision-making and political process, bringing the cannabis debate back to the agenda. “We also squatted several facilities such as the Melkweg or Paradiso – goes on de Loor – which became the first” house dealer” in the city where people could buy quality cannabis or hashish and smoke during a gig or debate”. In those years heroin became popular and the Dutch authorities faced a great dilemma: either chasing every drug user or focusing only on those consuming the most dangerous. The latter was chosen: the government relaxed its approach to cannabis, following studies commissioned by the parliament between 1968 and 1972.
In the results of these investigations, it was suggested to diversify the approach by dividing the black market between “drugs whose risks are unacceptable” and “drugs whose risks are acceptable”; cannabis was then placed in the second group. The authorities then began to loosen the grip on consumers and finally in ’76, the parliament amended the Opium Act choosing not to punish consumers anymore and to tolerate a small scale sale of soft drugs. That reform opened the doors for coffeeshops.