Czech drug policy goes Dutch

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The Netherlands is no longer alone in its permissive approach to drugs. Legislative changes in the Czech Republic look set to make it the country with the most liberal drug policy in Europe.

Probably against their will, the Czechs have found themselves at the forefront of the permissive lobby on drugs. The Czech Republic traditionally pursued a policy which classified possession of "anything more than small amounts of drugs" as a punishable offence, but this vague formulation generated a great deal of confusion.

To put an end to this grey area, the government and parliament set about describing in detail exactly how many grams of each category of drug may be tolerated by law. In doing so, they make a clear distinction between the possession and use of small amounts of drugs on the one hand, and trading in drugs on the other hand.

No legalisation
The fact that the government has painstakingly detailed permissible amounts of drugs has been interpreted by some as legalising drug use. But that is not the case.

The possession and use of smaller amounts of drugs, such as 1 gram of cocaine or 15 grams of marijuana, is no longer a punishable offence but has been downgraded to a misdemeanour which can at most result in a fine.

In this sense, the Czech policy does not differ from the Dutch. For Nathalie Dekker of the drugs information hotline at the Trimbos Institute, therefore, the move does not come as a particular surprise.

In big cities where drug use is widespread, it is not uncommon for people to adapt the law and the rules to the situation. The pressure on politicians builds and builds if people have to be punished for small amounts. At a certain point, that's just not feasible anymore.

Tightening up
Nevertheless, developments in the Czech Republic are in stark contrast to the current trend in the Netherlands. Dutch politics seems to be moving towards stricter policies. There are enough reasons for this, argues Nathalie Dekker.

You can see questions being asked as to whether we aren't giving people too much freedom, especially young people. And, of course, it's worth asking whether a stricter drugs policy makes sense. But I think there is reason enough to look seriously at the effects of drugs and to warn people about them, just as we do with alcohol.

One aspect being alluded to by Nathalie Dekker is the fact that the cannabis sold in the Netherlands nowadays contains a far higher concentration of the active substance than used to be the case. Major dance parties and festivals in the Netherlands are already taking a harder line on drugs possession. But that aside, Nathalie Dekker does not expect any real tightening up of the Dutch policy on drug possession and use.

The stricter policy measures being advocated in the Netherlands are far more concerned with Dutch "coffeeshops" where soft drugs are sold. In other words, it is the trade in soft drugs which is the focus. All in all, the Czechs' permissive policy, restricted as it is to possession and use, is not all that different from that of the Dutch.

Even the fact that the Czech Republic also gives the nod to small amounts of hard drugs is not a new development. The Netherlands applies virtually the same amounts in its own tolerance policy. The emphatic distinction that the Netherlands makes between soft and hard only applies to the trade in drugs. Hard drugs have no place in the Dutch coffee shop.