Sunday, June 01, 2008

UNODC director goes to Amsterdam: the lost report

As revealed on the Transform blog on May 6th the head of the UN office on drugs and crime, Antonio Maria-Costa, recently visited Amsterdam to see for himself how their policies on drugs (and sex work) operate in practice. Now we can exclusively bring you his personal account of that visit that has apparently proved so controversial with his Dutch hosts that it saw the light of day for only a few brief hours online before being deleted.

As the May 6th blog speculated the visit was possibly part of a response to recent challenges Costa had faced from civil society concerning Dutch policy's effectiveness (regards prevalence rates) relative to other countries that have very different polices (more in line with those espoused by the UNODC). Notably, a video of one such challenge made at the UN NGO forum in Vienna this March has now had 40,000 hits on YouTube - many times more than any of their expensively produced PSA's.

Costa stated at the recent IHRA conference in Barcelona, when asked what he had learnt from his visit, that he would be producing a report, throwing in a highly dubious sounding statistic about Amsterdam having three times the cannabis addiction rate of anywhere else in Europe. We wait to see whether he can back that up with any real world references – seems unlikely somehow but you never know; with some diligent cherry picking and other statistical shenanigans you can show just about whatever you want. From his various comments on the Netherlands drug policy and given the UNODC and INCB’s historically hard line philosophy and animosity to progressive drug policy generally (and lauding of the Swedish zero tolerance anti-harm reduction model) the worry has to be that he approached the visit as an opportunity to seek out evidence to bolster his preconceptions rather than as an part of an objective review of policy impacts and efficacy. Costa has made big play of his sound bite that countries get 'the drug problems they deserve' and presumably does not want to be proven wrong by those pesky Dutch liberals (they are actually very conservative, but let's not let that get in the way of a good story).

Transform has now received a document titled ‘Amsterdam blog Mon 27 April 08’ which apparently appeared briefly on ‘Costa’s Corner’, his UNODC blog (although not really a blog as you can’t post comments) before swiftly disappearing again. Sadly I don’t visit it often enough to confirm this (posting is not very frequent, or very interesting). Still, the rumour is that Costa presented a report on his Amsterdam visit to his host, the Netherlands Ministry of Health, and that this report was considered unacceptable, and rejected by them. So it may be that this blog was indeed posted in Costa's Corner but retracted after a few days - when the relevant Dutch authorities made it clear they were not happy with his public pronouncements (not for the first time - and remember they are one of the UNODC's biggest donor states). But who really knows – he is an international man of mystery.

Anyway, here is the now disappeared personal report for your unedited reading pleasure, the authenticity of which we have no reason to doubt. We await (with a certain weary trepidation) the revised version, should one ever appear, and also the final UNODC Amsterdam report, which may even include some references. I have added some preliminary comments in blue italics. I’m sure some of our Dutch colleagues will have more to say about all this, and your comments are welcome.....

Amsterdam: City of Tolerance is Tightening the Rules

Amsterdam is famous for its business wealth, world-class museums, canals, ubiquitous bicycle riders and care-free lifestyle - as well as for its red light district and marijuana coffee-shops. Since my Office is responsible for drug control and crime prevention (including fighting human trafficking), I decided to learn more about the facts - rather than the myths - surrounding the cannabis and sex trades in this wonderfully unique city. Thanks to the generous hospitality of Mayor Job Cohen and his staff, with colleagues from the Office I made a study tour of the city, with a full programme of meetings, lectures, presentations and on sight visits.

Back in Vienna, so many images of this fascinating city stick in my mind: the beautiful Rijksmuseum, the phantasmagoria of tulips, the historic bridges and the richly decorated houses overlooking the canals. But also the sights and the smells of drug coffee shops, especially the one I was invited to visit (featured in the movie Ocean's 12). Its jolly owner -- who said (and one could tell) he had personally tested all his products -- proudly showed me a colourful marijuana menu, that he compared it to a wine list, emblazoned with colourful graphics and vivid jargon. On offer were hashish products, ranging from the expensive Dutch-produced full and rich Water Works (at 50 euro a gramm) recommended only to experienced smokers, to the cheaper black Lala Hasna from Morocco, graded very strong stoned.

Note the contemptuous ‘he’s a druggie’ dig nestling in this paragraph

There were also varieties of marijuana like the very strong, clear high Mexican Haze, the sweet & fruity Love Potion no. 5, and a cheap mellow & spicy Laughing Buddha.

That was about drugs. What about sex?

Equally unforgettable were Amsterdam's sex windows (450), its brothels (30) and escort agencies (120). I recall, just facing our boat's embarcadero, one house with 3 such windows and as many scantly clad prostitutes soliciting their bodies – right next to a kindergarten, and across the street from one of Amsterdam's most beautiful churches.

Children and religion: pressing some emotive buttons?

Throughout the red light district a great variety of skin colours, ages, sizes and shapes were on offer (apparently there are around 8,000 sex workers). I cannot say much about the prices and types of services as we did not walk into any of these joints or speak with any of the women for rent, but the sex market seemed thriving. More than once I saw male clients, after some hesitation in front of the merchandise on display (sorry: in front of the girls), walk in - and the window curtain immediately pulled shut.

OK – slightly sneering but essentially reasonable descriptions of a coffee-shop and some window sex workers. Shame he didn't see fit to talk to any of the sex workers. That seems like a major missed opportunity.

A libertine city?

Despite its reputation, the Netherlands does not actually have a tolerant drug policy. Law enforcement is tough. There are increased efforts to hit drug traffickers and confiscate their assets: the city's enormous Schiphol airport has long maintained a zero-drug tolerance on passengers, crews, cargos and even aircraft.

It is in fact almost uniquely tolerant towards users, even if not to trafficking; important distinction. Obviously every airport on Earth has a zero tolerance approach to trafficking so this remark is meaningless. He seems to struggle to understand how tolerance and strict regulation can be compatible.

Throughout the country, there are plenty of measures (even coercive) to address the health of drug addicts. Spending on drug control is by far the highest in Europe (almost 0.7% of GDP). As a result, the Netherlands has below EU-average annual prevalence rates of cocaine, opiate, and amphetamine use. The percentage of people (aged 15-65) who consume cannabis at least once a year (5.4%) is above the global average (3.9%), though much lower than, say, Spain and Italy (11.2%) or Canada (17%).

None of these three countries have coffee shops

Note, however, that despite the high budget expenditure (much larger than even in Sweden, where 0.47% of GDP is spent in drug control), the prevalence rate of cannabis use in the Netherlands is greater than in Sweden (3.1%). Is it that tolerant attitudes on the ground (i.e. at the municipal level) reduce the impact of otherwise uniquely high drug-related national budget expenditure?

Is that pure speculation? Greece has one fiftieth the per-capita drug expenditure of the Netherlands and a lower level of drug use (according to the EMCDDA). Could it be that levels of drug use are determined by a complex and highly localised interplay of multiple social, cultural, economic and demographic variables, and that government drug policies, specifically enforcement and prevention efforts, have, at best, only marginal impacts?

A convincing model?

Of course, a closer scrutiny of the drug prevalence numbers, their causes and implications is needed, and we are undertaking it at UNODC. A few facts struck me, however. First, the marijuana coffee shops concept is logically flawed, as owners buy the drug illegally in bulk from traffickers and then sell it legally at retail.

That would be your fault Costa. Whilst tolerating use may be allowed by a flexible interpretation of the conventions, legal production for sale obviously isn’t. The Dutch system is obviously flawed, but that is because of the constraints placed on it by the legal framework that Costa oversees - tolerance rather than legal regulation of production supply and use. This fact is not lost on the Dutch, which is why their parliament recently discussed how this problem might be addressed ,with a call for the system to be regularised within a new international framework coming from a group of senior Dutch policy makers. Costa must have known about this and it's a shame it doesn’t get a mention.

Second, these are licensed shops that sell an internationally controlled (i.e. illicit) drug: hence the complaints from neighbouring countries that drug tourism is encouraged.

Ive never been sure why cannabis tourism is inevitably a bad thing? Some people come to the city to enjoy the coffee shops. So what? Will Costa be condemning the famous - all you can drink - tours of Amsterdam's Heineken brewery?

Third, as the EU smoking ban in public places comes into effect on 1 July, Dutch citizens will face the bizarre situation of being allowed to smoke a cannabis joint, but not allowed to smoke a cigarette in a coffee shop. Does all this make sense to you?

This does seem strange, and I would have to be convinced that there was a good case for making this distinction, but it's really a side issue. Vaporizer lounges in Vancouver have managed to get around the no-smoking ordinances.

Why such a tolerant attitude towards cannabis?

We asked, and were told, that in 1976 the Netherlands passed an updated Opium Act that bans drug use (in line with the UN drug control Conventions).

Only the 1988 convention actually specifies that personal use should be subject to criminal penalties (and even that is subject to significant caveats). 1988 came after 1976 if I read my calendar correctly.

The Act makes a distinction between hard and soft drugs, although neither is legal (the soft/hard distinction is not sanctioned in the UN Conventions).

Hard/Soft is not a useful distinction and not one used by Transform and rarely if ever by others in the reform community. Even the most scientific ranking of relative harms (which the UN drug schedules can barely lay claim to) does not change the fact that all drugs can be harmful, and cannabis is no exception, especially when used in certain ways by certain individuals.

Nevertheless, and following a policy of dedoogbeleid (tolerance), marijuana coffee shops - which, according to the International Narcotics Control Board violate the UN Conventions - are allowed to sell cannabis under specific conditions (no more than 5 grams per person, no patrons under the age of 18, no more than 500 grams kept in the coffee shop, etc). The goal, as described to me, is to separate the market between more and less harmful drugs, curb street dealing of cannabis, and keep its users in the mainstream of society.

All of which it does very effectively, not that the prevalence obsessed Costa will tell us this.

What are the results?

A fundamental principle in economic science is that supply and price of a product affect its demand. With cannabis legally and plentifully available, its use is much higher in Amsterdam (almost 3 times more) than in the rest of the country (note: 80% of Dutch municipalities do not allow the sale of marijuana).

'Use' is somewhat different from 'addiction' as he proclaimed in Barcelona.

Furthermore, in Amsterdam marijuana consumption is well above EU averages - and these figures do not count the tourists.

The nature of averages means some places will be above and some below. There are of course many places without coffee shops that are also above the average, and indeed above Amsterdam regards consumption rates.

An urban problem? Hardly so: there is no difference in the rates of marijuana use between London and the rest of the UK, or between Washington DC and the rest of the USA. Elsewhere in the world, the urban setting does not affect drug consumption rates: why should it affect Amsterdam?

I would like to see some references for this. Are the relative rural urban demographics in the US, UK and Netherlands comparable? Do the countries geographies make a difference? What about other countries in Europe, ones that neighbour the Netherlands for example – is Costa cherry picking? And is cannabis not plentifully available almost everywhere?

To conclude, the city has a health problem caused by marijuana availability, and this could get worse as cannabis becomes more potent.

Cannabis is available everywhere and some health problems will no doubt result from its use, But, in what way does this 'health problem' compare to similar countries without coffee shops? .....*silence*

We asked plenty of questions, and were given lots of information from open, friendly and well-prepared experts, willing to engage in debate in a most courteous and constructive way
Everything that we learned, and the conclusions we shall draw from it, will add to UNODC's research on different approaches to drug control around the world.

In the mean time please read this ill-considered rant

Tightening the rules

Most importantly, we were told that Amsterdam is taking measures to reduce the number of coffee shops and sex clubs, to reflect policy and attitude changes about both. Country-wide, the number of coffee shops has dropped by a third in the past decade: the number of people seeking treatment for cannabis-related health problems has doubled in the same period. (Note: there were 729 coffee shops in the Netherlands in 2005, of which 226 are in Amsterdam.) We were told that the onward trend will continue.

The broader policy of tolerance, however, enjoys wide and growing support from police public and policy makers. Lets hope the public police and policy maker opinion polls are included in the final UNODC report - rather than a few cherry-picked negative quotes from dissenters

Tougher actions are also envisaged against people involved with drugs who cause public nuisance.

No one would really object to that. It’s not relevant.

I was happy to visit a care centre for addicts, serviced by dedicated staff with big hearts and an extraordinary sense of friendship.

Did you visit a supervised injecting room?

We were told that the government is also contemplating a ban on grow-shops

They are also 'contemplating' this in the UK. Sadly it is impossible to stop people selling equipment to grow plants. Its political posturing and nothing more.

and magic mushrooms,

in response to a tabloid panic

and is moving marijuana coffee shops farther away from schools.

Fine – but it also has a populist ring to it, rather like the UK's sporadic clamp downs on the 'evil dealers' of tabloid mythology who 'prey on school children at the school gates'.

(Note: the Maastricht town council is even looking at ways of restricting access to marijuana shops to residents, as a way of preventing drug tourism and related complaints by neighbours).

Again, if this sort of regulation is what is democratically deemed appropriate, fine, but they are specifically not talking about closing them down.

I was also interested to hear that the government plans to publish a comprehensive evaluation of the national drugs policy in spring 2009, that will "look at the effectiveness of the policy of tolerance, make a risk assessment of the damaging effects of cannabis, and focus attention on the social impact of drugs."

Great – but don’t pre-empt them, or put political pressure that would compromise its objectivity.

What about the sex trade?

All over the world the drug and the sex trades go together

Usually because they are both prohibited and controlled by the same gangsters. The debates around legal regulation of both correspondingly have a lot in common.

, often accompanied by violence and crime

See previous comment

: hence former Secretary General Kofi Annan's decision to established UNODC (in 1997) to deal with them all. Not surprisingly Amsterdam is also tightening policy regarding sexual exploitation and prostitution (which has been legal since 2000: the only city in the world).

Maybe I don't understand what he's saying here but I’m sure that’s not true. Prostitution is legal in the UK even if soliciting is criminalised. There was some pragmatic moves to have licensed brothels in the UK (currently they exist and, rather like Dutch coffee shops, are tolerated by police) but these have since been abandoned and criminalising paying for sex has been mooted. Yup. That should work.

The municipality is carrying out large scale urban renewal in parts of the red light district. One of the more striking projects is to buy up canal-front properties formerly used as brothels, and rent them out to fashion designers. It is a bit eerie, yet effective, to see well-dressed mannequins (from top designers) in the same windows that until recently exhibited undressed women. Still, the city admits to problems in combating human trafficking and the booming escort services (Note: the latter have doubled since 1999 and now employ 1000-1200 women and men).

Trafficking in women is a problem for sex work the world over. The difference is that in the Netherlands, as elsewhere where it is legal and regulated, the women are better protected and have better access to care services.

We visited a newly opened counselling centre for prostitutes. I was impressed by the efforts social workers are putting into remedial actions to rescue victims of human trafficking who are trapped in rooms not much bigger than the size of a bed, behind oversized street windows.

A hunch and a wish

Amsterdam deserves credit for its focus on evidence-based policy on drugs and sexual exploitation - and for the wisdom to adapt local regulations as needs arise. My hunch is that the progressive tightening will continue and address the health risks of increasingly potent cannabis (its psycho-active component, THC, is more than 15%, as against the 2-3% when I was a Berkeley flower kid).

This sentence starts well but then the cannabis potency issue appears, which is rather more complicated than Costa suggests here. Different strains have different strengths and as Costa has already noted, unlike almost anywhere else in the world, in a coffeeshop you can chose the potency you are after, and get advice from the vendor (but beware, he may be a stoner!). The lower potency strains remain in demand, just as some people choose to drink beer instead of absinthe. The relative balance of CBD and THC (there is more than one active ingredient in cannabis) can have a significant impact on its effects/risks.

It is also looking at better protection of the increasing number of trafficked women.

Good. But driving them further underground with enforcement crackdowns is unlikely to facilitate this, one suspects. What exactly are you calling for Costa?

My wish is to see this process of change well documented so that, first, the myths about Amsterdam's drug and sex trades are dispelled and, second, useful lessons are learned by other administrations.

Agreed. But I hope that it is not just you doing the documenting. As head of a globe straddling prohibitionist enforcement agency I would have to question your objectivity.

PS: Mayor Job Cohen is not elected (he is government-appointed) and I'm not a Dutch citizen. Should these two impediments be removed, next time around I would vote for him.

gratuitous brown nosing.

1 comment:

DDAA said...

According to a report published by Bloomberg six years ago:

"For every 20 euros a tourist spends stocking up on White Widow, White Smurf or Warlock marijuana, he or she spends 200 euros on food and lodging in the city, coffee-shop owners estimated.
"The 1976 decriminalization of smoking marijuana contributed to the Dutch economy. Drugs were a 1.4 billion euro ($1.36 billion) business worth 0.5 percent of gross domestic product in 1995, the last time the government collected such figures."

Apart from this, they cash in around $600 million a year from taxes to The Coffee Shops.

Drug tourism and tolerance are a real plight for the Dutch, no doubt.