Friday, April 19, 2013

The United States vs. The Netherlands

My favorite reading so far has been Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" because I have found it so enlightening. Although I have long recognized the generality that the US has a lot of jails and a lot of people filling them, I never been aware of systematic racism involved. I am now conscious of the fact that mass incarceration unfairly targets black communities and that going to jail for petty, non-violent crimes can ruin lives by barring individuals from mainstream society. The cycle that has arisen from The War on Drugs is more than disturbing.

The War on Drugs began before I was born and I was not aware of its existence before doing the reading. This approach to ameliorating the drug situation in the United States is so characteristic of American policies for "fixing" problems.  The War on Drugs creates more problems just as abstinence-only education causes more teen pregnancies and prohibition caused more organized crime.  By ignoring the root causes of social problems and by inflicting the most serious punishment for these non-violent acts, the drug problem is not alleviated in the United States.

Our class discussion reminded me of the first time I visited the Netherlands in 2008.  I was visiting my sister while she studied abroad, and I ended up learning a lot about the country while I was there.  Although the Netherlands is perhaps best known for its legalization of marijuana, what I found more shocking was the over all approach to drug problems.  In opposition to the US policy, the dutch policy focuses on "diversion to care".  If a person is found with drugs the approach is to seize the drug with no further prosecution.  If prosecution takes place, the goal is not to punish but to enter the drug user into a rehabilitation program so that he or she can re-enter society.  In addition, there is a public program in the Netherlands to provide drug users with clean needles as to prevent the transmission of such diseases as HIV.  This approach may seem very radical to Americans, but statistics demonstrate that it is an effective program:

Social IndicatorComparison YearUSANetherlands
Lifetime prevalence of marijuana use200540.6% (ages 12 and up)122.6% (ages 15-64)2
Past year prevalence of marijuana use200510.3% (ages 12 and up)15.4% (ages 15-64)2
Lifetime prevalence of heroin use20051.5% (ages 12 and up)10.6% (ages 15-64)2
Incarceration Rate per 100,000 population2008756 3100 4
Per capita spending on criminal justice system (in Euros)1998€379 5€223 5
Homicide rate per 100,000 population20095.061.16
- See more at:

As you can see, a comparison between drug policy in the United States and the Netherlands is astounding in many ways. Why wouldn't the United States use an approach that is more effective, if the concern is to help the drug problem in the United States? 

My response to this question is that the War on Drugs in the United States combines some seriously flawed notions of capitalism and racism. An increase in jails and the incentive given to police officers to round up as many drug users as possible has created many issues. Most importantly, as Alexander points out, this unstoppable system specifically targets people of color and destroys communities.  It is astounding that, although white men are just as likely or more likely to do drugs, it is black men who are targeted.  

The United States and the Netherlands are different, in my opinion, because they have two different objectives.  The Netherlands wants to rehabilitate drug users and enter them back into society.  The United States wants to destroy drug users and hide them away from society --- especially if those drug users come from low-income communities of color. The War on Drugs demonstrates just one way that institutionalized racism still exists in America. 

Why do you think that the United States and Netherlands approach drugs so differently? 

1 comment:

  1. I think this is a very important comparison to have made and it is something that I have thought about a lot recently. It reminded me of a discussion we had in class regarding the disparity in prosecution between crack and cocaine and how this targetted poor African Americans.

    It futher brings to mind the notion that drugs prosecution is merely a means of incarcerating those most likely to be found with certain drugs. The point that was made in class that the War on Drugs was an excuse to 'round up' African American men and impose on them a form of legalised slavery resonated with me. I thought it was a very poignant comment.

    I may be biased as a European but I think the Netherlands have a good balance in their policy. They accept that people take drugs and almost help them until they can help themselves. Although it is a very different country with different race relations within it, it certainly should be a model that the US shoudl take a look at.


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