September 13, 2013 1:29 pm

How we all went Dutch

Policy makers in Holland aren’t hippie potheads. They legalised dope because they are cold-headed realists
An illustration of a woman holding tulips and a Dutch flag©Luis Grañena

I’m not Dutch but, in 1976, my family moved to the Netherlands. Though my new classmates were only seven, most cycled to school alone. Later our town got “coffee shops” that sold dope legally.

I left Holland aged 16 but in 1999 I returned to spend a winter researching a book, and got addicted to a new TV show about some idiots locked in a house together. Yes: the Dutch had invented Big Brother. In 2001 they pioneered legal gay marriage and euthanasia.

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Simon Kuper

In my youth, the Dutch thought of themselves as a “guide land”: a sort of advanced model for dimmer countries to follow. I thought this was absurdly smug, but now I see they were right. The Dutch invented much of the world of 2013: bicycles in cities, legal soft drugs and gay marriage. I suspect their next scheme to go global will be legal euthanasia.

Gay marriage has got the headlines this year, but the worldwide crumbling of the “war on drugs” is equally remarkable. It’s stunning to hear Eric Holder, the US attorney-general, say: “As the so-called ‘war on drugs’ enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have truly been effective.”

They haven’t been effective. In 1998 the United Nations general assembly held a special session under the slogan, “A drug-free world. We can do it!” Since then global drugs consumption has soared. Meanwhile the “war on drugs”, launched by Richard Nixon, just keeps wreaking devastation. John Collins, an expert on drugs policy at the London School of Economics, cites a few examples: packed US prisons, Russia’s HIV epidemic, and 40 years of Latin American drugs violence.

No wonder 34 countries in the Organisation of American States agreed in June “to encourage the consideration of new approaches” to drugs. Uruguay is now creating the world’s first fully legal market for marijuana. Colorado and Washington state allow recreational pot-smoking. Other US states may soon follow. Holder wants shorter federal prison sentences for drug dealers. Another sign of the times is the recent Hollywood comedy, We’re the Millers, about a likeable pot dealer trying to move weed from Mexico to the US. Hollywood dares to play the topic for laughs because public opinion is shifting to the Dutch position.

Dutch policy makers aren’t hippie potheads. They legalised dope because they are cold-headed realists. They know that life is messy, and has no perfect solutions. When the pot epidemic of the late 1960s arrived, they sat down, held long boring discussions, and decided to manage soft drugs rather than pretend to eradicate them. By letting pot be sold legally, they could cut some criminals out of the supply chain. And legal sales-points wouldn’t sell hard drugs. An American kid who buys dope from his dealer can usually get something stronger from his dealer too; a Dutch kid can’t. Today Dutch rates of pot and heroin use are far below US levels, and drug gangs aren’t gunning each other down on Dutch bike paths. The Netherlands isn’t the permissive society. It’s the pragmatic society.

Dutch euthanasia policy may spread next. An Alzheimer’s epidemic has hit the west. From 2000 to 2010 the number of Americans dying from the disease rose 68 per cent, while deaths from most other causes fell, says the US Alzheimer’s Association. It estimates that 5.2 million Americans now have the disease. No cure is in sight.

I’ve seen Alzheimer’s up close. In the care home I know, some patients haven’t communicated for years. I’d rather die. I’d also hate to make my relatives spend years caring for my unconscious body. A care-home director told me about an old woman, who had come in with her senile husband, and said quite calmly: “I can’t cope anymore. Either you give him a room, or we’ll go home and there’s going to be a double suicide.”

Euthanasia happens everywhere, whether it’s legal or not. But as the Dutch realise, if it’s legal you can oversee it. This summer a Dutch friend of mine died a slow unstoppable death. I discovered then how bureaucratic Dutch euthanasia is: a dying patient, whose suffering is unbearable, can only get euthanasia if she clearly requests it from her doctor while of sound mind. A second doctor must then be consulted. By contrast, doctors in other countries dare not discuss euthanasia openly, and instead often arrange large doses of morphine through ambiguous conversations – sometimes with the patient’s relatives rather than with the patient herself.

The western wind may be changing for euthanasia too. Between 51 and 70 per cent of Americans now support legalisation, depending on how you phrase the question, say the pollsters Gallup. In France, president François Hollande wants it legalised this year. Opponents will shout about “death panels” killing granny. But as ever, to find out how these matters can be ordered sensibly, ask the Dutch. Sadly although they created the world of 2013, they’re not now busy creating the world of 2033. I wonder which country has taken over as the brilliant social laboratory to the world.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

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