A leading Dutch harm reduction organisation, Mainline, launched a crowdfunding campaign to open the first ever museum dedicated to drugs. Read our interview with Machteld Busz, the director of Mainline – and support their cause!
Drugreporter: When and why did you decide to create the first museum dedicated to drugs and the people who use them?
Machteld Busz: About two years ago, and we started getting serious in developing the plan about one and a half years ago. Poppi: Drugs Museum Amsterdam is set up as a social enterprise. We want to educate the general public about drugs, drug dependency, drug policies, and drug culture. Secondly, we hope to make profits and return those to our foundation. And third we would love to employ people who use drugs at some point in the future. First things first however; we need to get some funds together to get us off to a flying start.
In the promotional leaflet you promise to “blow our minds” with psychedelic artwork and ancient artefacts. Can you talk a bit more about the preparation of the exhibition? How did you collect artefacts and who were the artists you worked with?
We started collecting drug-related art alongside our ‘normal’ harm reduction work. We rely heavily on friends from the field who share a passion and donated or lent art. Now that we have decided to start a museum we can start a more comprehensive and serious collection. We will start the museum ‘lean’, with a series of exhibitions, events, and art-shows. We want to gradually ‘fill’ the eventual museum. In doing so, we want to combine new technology such as virtual reality, or ‘immersive art’ in the form of a situation room, with science and more traditional art to engage people on a deeper level. That would be the ‘blow your mind’ part!
Who is the main target audience of this museum, mostly Dutch people or international visitors?
Both. We want to engage with everyone who’s lives have been touched somehow by drugs. In a positive or negative way – or in both ways. One of our key goals is to stimulate the debate about drugs and the politics around it. We see that the public debates around drugs are often not based on evidence and facts, but rather on emotions such as frustration and fear. This can have dangerous consequences, both for individuals and for those who make political decisions.
There are lots of debates about drug education. Some people believe that it is dangerous to talk about the joy of drug use to young people because you can send a bad message. How would you respond to them?
In the Netherlands we have a tradition of openly talking about taboo topics. We don’t believe that when people have a better understanding of drugs and the effects and risks of different substances that they will suddenly start using, or that their drug use will increase. And this belief is supported by evidence. Evidence is more scattered when it comes to primary prevention among younger kids. This is why we want to work with scientists who specialise in this area. And for some expositions or events there might be an age restriction. The last thing we want to do is promote drug use. But we do think that people have a right to solid information so they can make informed decisions about their own drug use. And, importantly, so that they understand drug dependency better and for example can learn how to support a friend or family member who struggles with drug dependency. This could help to reduce stigma and avoid the rejection and isolation of people who use drugs.
Holland is often praised as one of the most liberal countries when it comes to drugs. As the leader of a harm reduction organisation, how do you see this image, is it accurate? Are the Dutch really more educated and more tolerant than most other people?
I wish.. There is still a lot of prejudice in the Netherlands against people who use drugs. As one of the main producers in the world of ecstasy and cannabis we also have a major drug problem in the country: on the producer’s side. There is a lot of black money and damage to the environment as a consequence of drug production. This leads to a discussion as to whether people who use drugs are morally responsible for this.
What makes Dutch drug policies great is the principled focus on (public) health. That means for example that people who use drugs are not put in jail for using drugs or possessing minor quantities. There is wide support for this approach among the Dutch public, as it has also helped to reduce crime and public order problems. Tolerance doesn’t come automatically with good education, although it does help I think. Where it comes to stigma – like every other country, we have much work to do.
How do you see the current trends in the drug market in Western Europe? Are there any new risks or challenges you would highlight?
The market is very dynamic. Loads of new substances enter the market and they each bring their -often unknown- risks. In the Netherlands we see a lot of poly-drug use. And we’ve suddenly become a producer of crystal-meth, which is not a drug that is widely used in the Netherlands yet. We are of course following trends that might spread from the US and Canada in terms of opioid use. Opioid-based pain killers are quite easily prescribed here in the Netherlands as well. That has not led to an increased demand for heroin or fentanyl as far as we know. But that could definitely change.
In a report you published in 2017 you describe best practices of harm reduction for stimulant users. What are those methods?
We described 12 evidence-based interventions and added a description of 7 best practices across the world. You can find all of these in this executive summary. Importantly, many of the interventions focus on the socio-economic situation of people who use stimulants: they are not so specifically related to stimulants. Of course, there are also a lot of practical harm reduction tips you can specifically provide people who use stimulants with. They relate to safe smoking for example, or to maintaining somewhat regular sleep patterns. And people who use stimulants might encounter specific mental health issues that differ from people who use heroin for example.
Mainline has many international activities. How do you see drug policies around the world? Is the progress we have made in previous decades endangered now by populist politics?
This is also not a black and white picture. The conservative forces in the world seem to be very strong at the moment, and debates around international drug policy seem to be completely stuck. But the new developments around the regulation of cannabis are positive and might generate bigger change. I also believe that the designer drug trends might undermine drug policy from the bottom-up: you can’t win that cat and mouse game between designer/producers and law enforcement/policy makers in my opinion.
The excesses in the Philippines are extremely worrying. Especially because the general public doesn’t seem to know about this. We hope Poppi can make a contribution here. People need to know what is going on in the Philippines, but also in the US in terms of fatal overdoses, or in Mexico where it comes to drug-related violence. And, yes, people should also know more about the role the Netherlands plays in the international arena: both the positive and the negative side of it.
Interview by Peter Sarosi