Freelance journalist and writer Wietse Pottjewijd published the book XTC – een biografie (XTC — a biography) last year with his friend and colleague Philippus Zandstra. For years, the two of them researched the cultural phenomenon XTC, a pill that has become fully embedded in the Dutch culture. He explains how the attitude of politicians has changed over the years, comments on the failed repression policy and speaks about his own relationship with XTC.
Text Aron Friedman
HH: What was the motive to write ‘XTC – a biography’?
Wietse: ‘We saw a shift at festivals, where the night programme became more important and the use of XTC ever more normalized. We thought that was an interesting situation. Pretty soon, we realized a book had never been written about XTC as a cultural phenomenon. When we took a dive into the story, we became increasingly excited. We started searching for eye-witnesses, asking them: what does it say about the Dutch, that this pill has become such a hit here?’
Did you reach new insights along the way?
‘I’ve started to understand things a lot better. If you look at the prohibition of XTC in 1988, you can’t help but wonder: why was the law installed and why wasn’t it applied for a long time afterwards? That had to do with heroin, a devastating drug epidemic in those days. XTC posed much less of a problem, so it was left alone several years by the police. That’s how XTC was able to grow under the radar in the early 90’s. It wasn’t until much later that the government realized the production was in the hands of criminal organizations. At that point, it was already too late for repression.
Has that repression been successful in the Netherlands?
‘In the War on Drugs, repression has never been truly successful. There was one Queensday in 2009, when XTC was barely available in the Netherlands, because the raw material PMK from China was successfully banned. But that just led to contaminated pills flooding the Dutch market, which in turn threatened the public health.
Furthermore, they soon came up with the idea in China to produce PMK-glycidate — a legal substance which is easily transformed into PMK in the Netherlands. This added an extra link in the process chain, which not only created more jobs for Dutch criminals, but also produced more drug waste. Unintentionally, the repression back then has led to many of the problems we’re facing right now.’
Photography by Titia Hahne
Holland was pioneering a progressive drug policy in the 90’s. How is it possible that we’re being surpassed left and right by other countries?
‘Officially, two departments are involved in the drug policy: Health and Justice. In the 80’s, Health was often in the lead, with guarding public health as the main goal. The best example that came from that was the heroin policy. We started distributing clean needles and methadone, which didn’t solve the problem, but definitely handled it in the best possible way. The phenomenon of heroin-junkies is now slowly dying out. On an international scale, that was cutting-edge policy.
There are many reasons why we lost that pragmatism. What definitely had an influence was the fact that in the late 80’s, there were plenty of very knowledgeable people in the Health department who stayed in their positions for a very long time — including top government officials, specialized in drug policy. In the course of the 90’s, that all started to change. A caroussel system came into place, where people started changing positions more rapidly. A lot of knowledge was lost, including a long term vision. The drug policy became more opportunistic.
Around the turn of the century, the zeitgeist started to change as well. The idea that Holland was a country where anything was possible and allowed, started to change in a more negative direction: people had to abide to the rules. Thanks to incidents like the fireworks catastrophe in Enschede, the huge bar fire in Volendam and the political muders on Fortuyn and Van Gogh, the call for more safety was getting stronger. You’d hear oneliners like: “More police in the streets!” And that was reflected in the drug policy. In those days, drug tests at festivals were also abolished. The government started to clamp down on drug users, zero tolerance was introduced at events. That policy didn’t actually lead to a decrease in drug use, so it was toned down after a while.’
The phenomenon of heroin-junkies is now slowly dying out
Doesn’t a tough rhetoric score better in politics?
‘Sure thing, it’s an easy statement for the minister of the Justice department to say: “ We’re going to crack down on drug criminals!” That makes you come across as a hardliner. At the same time you’ve got parties like GroenLinks and D66, who are saying there should be a different drug policy. But they only bring that up when there’s not much at stake; as soon as the cards are really being dealt, they stop talking about it. Apparently, there isn’t a single party which really thinks changing the drug policy is important enough.
At High Humans, we’re fighting for decriminalization and legalization. What’s the best way for us to accomplish that?
‘I find that a tough question. What would be amazing — and that’s the reason why I’m doing this interview — is if drug use stops being stigmatized. What I find an interesting example is an essay by David Nutt from 2009, a neuropharmacist who has extensively researched drug policy and was advising the UK government for a period of time. His paper was about something he called ‘equasy’, something he presented as a new phenomenon.
When reading the essay, at first you think he’s talking about a new drug. He describes the dangers: there are accidents, casualties, people getting brain damage. Then he argues that equasy should be a Class A drug. But all the way at the end of the paper, you find out that he’s actually speaking of equestrianism, horseback riding. What he’s trying to point out is that XTC can be just as dangerous as horseback riding, and that if you stop stigmatizing it, you’re starting to look at it differently.
That change isn’t going to happen top-down, as politics show. But bottom-up initiatives — like High Humans — might have a chance of succeeding. You can see how this is part of a broader movement; in the UK, you’re seeing Drug Reform groups with scientists writing publications about how you can change the drug policy. The knowledge is there, but it needs to surface and gain broader support.’
David Nutt pointed out is that XTC can be just as dangerous as horseback riding, and that if you stop stigmatizing it, you’re starting to look at it differently.
Where do you see XTC in five or ten years?
‘Naturally, this is a very strange period. Nightlife is completely dead, there are no festivals taking place. Samples from the sewage systems are indicating that the use of XTC is decreasing. By now, XTC has proven it’s here to stay. But new, more dangerous drugs are also on the rise.
Don’t forget about the evolution that has taken place in drug labs in the South of Holland. The same places where they used to distill moonshine jenever, produced speed later on, and then XTC. A producer who sees his demand decline, will try to find new markets. You’re already seeing a lot of them making the shift to producing crystal meth. The demand for meth isn’t huge in the Netherlands yet, but it is in Eastern Europe. I hope a highly addictive substance like that won’t take XTC’s place in the future.
On the other hand, you’re also seeing XTC returninging to its original therapeutic use. In the US, MDMA has been approved as a tool for psychotherapy by the FDA. In the Netherlands, we’re also testing it on veterans with PTSS. I think that use will be emphasized more in the coming years.’
Journalists Philippus Zandstra and Wietse Pottjewijd (right). Photography by Titia Hahne
What’s your own relationship with XTC?
‘I grew up in Hardenberg, where drinking was the main thing to do. I only got acquainted with XTC once I moved to Amsterdam, and it’s a drug that suits me better. I use it once in a while, because it enhances my life. When you’ve taken a pill, you’re not just more open about your emotions, but you can also tighten bonds and become closer friends.
My girlfriend died this year. For a long time, she was in the hospital, where she had a whiteboard to put up postcards and pictures. When I think about the pictures we had put up there… those weren’t the moments we were in the office sitting at our desks or drinking orange juice on the couch; they were the good times we had at festivals with friends.
That made me realize: these are the moments that end up on the whiteboard of our lives. We tend to underestimate them, but I’ve come to cherish them more. It’s not that you only become good friends when you’re on MDMA, but the memories you create while you’re under the influence of a pill, are the types of moments that make life worthwhile.’
WHO IS WIETSE POTTJEWIJD?
Wietse Pottjewijd (1986) lives in Amsterdam and was raised in Hardenberg. He currently works as a freelance journalist, where he loves to right in-depth stories about sub- and drug cultures. He hereby loves to exceed the boundaries of the law. After doing a photography course, he went on to study journalism at Windesheim. He has done projects for The Volkskrant, Eenvandaag and Vice Media Benelux. His first book: XTC: A Biography has been published by Singel Uitgeverijen.