Places where illegal drugs can be safely consumed still exist in the Netherlands. The country draws a distinction between marijuana and hashish, on the one hand, and hard illegal drugs, such as ecstasy, heroin, and cocaine, on the other.
At spots known as “coffeeshops,” users can purchase up to five grams of cannabis daily. Possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana for personal use is not considered a crime.
This does not imply, however, the legalization of drug use. Outside these coffeeshops and in excess of these amounts, Dutch law does not allow possession, sale, production, or traffic.
The establishment of such places intended for safe drug consumption occurred in the context of a harm reduction policy in effect in the Netherlands since the decade of the ’80’s. Other countries, such as Switzerland, adopted similar initiatives.
According to the Brazilian national Anti-drug secretary, Paulo Roberto Uchôa, Switzerland used to have drug-use areas in some squares but ended up closing all of them down.
“There was too big an increase in the problems involving public health, crime, the influx of foreign users and addicts, and trafficking,” he reports.
Uchôa also reveals that even the Netherlands experiences a problem with the coffeeshops. According to him, the owners have to purchase marijuana on the illegal market to be able to sell it to consumers.
These experiences demonstrate how the debate over adopting harm reduction policies is also controversial in other countries. Most still prefer repressive measures to combat the drug advance.
Nevertheless, despite heavy investments in anti-drug laws and campaigns, the number of consumers remains high.
According to a Beckley Foundation study released this year, the United States alone spends around US$ 30 billion annually on its plan to combat drugs.
Yet 185 million people around the world still use narcotics, according to the 2004 report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
According to the president of the Brazilian Harm Reduction Network (Reduc), Giselda Turenzio, Australia, Brazil, Spain, and some parts of the United States already practice such policies. Each in its own manner, some more liberal, others not quite so.
The idea is to take a more humane view of drug users and diminish the demand and supply of narcotics, as well as decreasing the risks to the health of consumers.
These policies arose as a way to contain the spread of type B hepatitis and AIDS and include measures like the distribution of sterile syringes and needles to users of injectable drugs, for its positive impact on the spread of HIV.
The preventive campaigns against alcohol abuse also stem from this approach.
For Turenzio, the benefits come from the lessening of discrimination against drug users.
“In the Brazilian case, anyone who uses drugs, especially injectable drugs, is highly marginalized and, consequently, does not seek health services for treatment, for fear of being denounced, and the harm reduction policy has changed this,” she affirms.
Translator: David Silberstein
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