Coffee-shops, Dutch drugs policy and Eric Fromberg (1943-2015)

It is a common mistake to think that cannabis is legal in The Netherlands, and that coffee-shops are part of the Dutch culture as tulips and VanGogh! Although the particularities of Dutch culture have allowed the idea of a controlled environment for a social practice, in their understanding that it is better to create “canals” rather than stopping the tidal of cannabis smoking, the truth is that this would not have been possible without the work of pioneers and scientists such as Erik Fromberg, who was one of the key figures in the discussion on cannabis use since the 1970s. Professor Fromberg was a leading scientist and thinker on drugs chemistry and policies. His obituary in french seems to me more appropriate to describe him:


ErikFromberg-1Erik Fromberg – de Bruijn (27 Juin 1943-16 October 2015): “Neuro-physiologiste, chef de cuisine, fasciné par la nature, chez soi dans la vallée du Dogon, un homme flamboyant, plen d’amour et de vitalité, et un grand inspirateur”

For me, Erik was one of the most awesome and inspiring person I’ve had ever met and it is with great sadness that I am writing this post: a form of apologizing for not being always there, and also a way of thanking him for his generosity and his friendship.  As the obituary suggests:  he lived a beautiful life, and he has been an inspiration for my own way of living mine.

(BAcevedo Sketchbook. Eric Fromberg, 2002, at home with African Top)



In 2000 I arrived in Amsterdam to do a masters degree on gender and business. It was my first big adventure abroad, I had just broke with my first husband, and Amsterdam was just the perfect destination for my desire of furthering my studies and research interests. In Colombia I had been working in the evaluation of the alternative development program – Plante- a “developmental approach” to offer alternatives to coca growers and their families. I had travelled around the country talking to farmers and realising that they only received the crumbs of the so called richness of this tragic trade : only 0.5% of the final price in the street was taken by the farmers, who in other circumstances would have preferred to cultivate traditional crops, yet, the market was not as efficient as with the kilo of coca leaf.  The contrast between the poverty of these farmers and the extravagant wealth and violence of the drug trade impressed me profoundly. Colombia was at the beginning of the Plan Colombia: a military investment and herbicide program that was seen as the solution to the problem. As ever, the structural causes of inequality and poverty were greatly overlooked, after all, there is so much money in the “markets of violence”.

To be in Amsterdam became the opportunity to learn the other side of the story. After all, there would not be trade without both producers and consumers and with that in mind I started my course.  Thanks to the good connections of one of the tutors, I was introduced to the wonderful Pinar Coskun, who at the time was working at CEDRO, Centre for Drugs Research, and she was organising a seminar on the topic. When I started investigating  more about CEDRO I was completely amazed: Peter Cohen, the director, had been written about drugs policies as a matter of social control and moral panic, the debate between an approach based on public health versus a criminal approach, and this tension would become eventually the central thesis of my own PhD dissertation (A post structuralist approach of the Cannabis Policy in the United Kingdom 2002-2005, available in the British Library).   But I am diverting again… because that very seminar would change my life.  The most important thinkers, activists and scientists on the topic of drugs policy were there, serious discussions on alternatives, policies and ethical aspects on what is a “drug”.

I was impressed by the man in front of me: dressed in a bright lime suit, a turtle neck top adorned by a huge scorpion medallion, this man was passionate, witty and precise. That was Erik Fromberg. Later, when the group had a drink after the seminar, Erik asked me if I was Beatriz Acevedo… I was taken aback; how ‘he’ knew my name? He said that somebody had announced my arrival. In my clumsy state I failed to ask: Who was that person? I could not think of anybody linked with the Netherlands, still I can’t. I was not that well connected as for being ‘announced’. If only, my presence in the seminar was a matter of chance, a happy coincidence… the only explanation was that the universe was really looking after me.  From that meeting things changed for me, as if all the good luck have been poured on my path: I formed one of the most important friendships of my life with Pinar Coskun, who is still one of my bestest friends; I learned so much from my meetings with Peter Cohen, who advised me to contact the team at the Drugs and Democracy Program of the Transnational Institute (months later I would have another key encounter with Martin Jelsma and Tom Blickman, and became a researcher at No.20 Paulus Potterstraat); and Erik Fromberg became my mentor in this path of my life.

At the time, Erik Fromberg was one of the leading thinkers on drugs policy, his role as Director of the Institute for Alcohol and Drugs TRIMBOS, he was a close collaborator of CEDRO and a government adviser, and his scientific approach to the use of substances made him an authority on the field. He had written about all sort of substances: ibogaine, ayahuasca, cocaine, merging an accute knowledge of neuro-chemistry with precise observations on the social and cultural issues that determine policies.  In fact his involvement and knowledge of drugs stemmed from his youth. In his words:

“In 1970, as the Dutch variant of Woodstock, the Kralingen Pop Festival was organized in Rotterdam, drawing thousands from the Netherlands. In 1971 thousands of hippies of the whole world gathered in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam. Youth centres as Fantasio, Paradiso and De Melkweg opened their doors, where the subculture flowered, including the use of hemp. Koos Zwart broadcasted the prices of the different cannabis varieties in prime radio time, adding information on other drugs provided by the Stichting Drug Informatie. This foundation, that aimed to provide scientifically sound information on drugs, to counteract the mythology that developed, although with different attitudes, among both the subculture and the general public, voiced it’s opinions as well in the Underground paper Hitweek/Aloha, as in the media directed to the general public, riding the waves of public concern about the subculture and it’s drug use. As a result of this development and the imminent change of the Opium Law, in the youth centres mentioned above and increasingly in others in the country too, so called “house dealers” were instituted to fight market adulteration and the sale of hard drugs. A cannabis dealer that was trusted by the staff of such a centre was allowed to sell hashish, without the police interfering. Certainly, there have been a couple of trials when this practice started, but these resulted in general, although reluctant, tolerance of this system by the authorities. So cannabis use became further regulated and private retail sale became more or less accepted but out of the Public’s sight. Use was accepted within limits, within these youth centres and as a result subcultural norms started to wane and mainstream norms waxed. The general public lost interest, because the use disappeared from sight. No more dark dealers at Dam square hissing “hash, hash”, retail was cleanly organized out of sight.” Erik Fromberg: The-case-of-the-netherlands-contradictions-and-values

This was the 1960s and drugs have become vehicles of spiritual experience, social communication and experimentation. As customary with the Dutch, instead of trying to “ignore” the situation, they started asking questions. What is exactly the problem? Is there a problem there? Albeit NL had signed the 1968 international drugs convention, still they play their own tune. Dutch people know that cultural practices, such as drug taking or even prostitution, cannot be simply forbidden: they are like water, the more you try to contain it the more they push, not in vain they have made their own country harnessing and channeling the water of the sea.  Erik was in a privileged position both as part of the youth movement of the 1960s, but also as a scientist and with close links with the Minister of Health. All of these helped to form a view of cannabis use as a matter of “health” rather than a criminal issue, and the idea of having specific places to smoke cannabis gained popularity: in this way, users will be comfortable and certainly protected from other forms of criminality, bad quality grass and physical hazards, and on the other hand, this visibility aids control. But, it must be noted, this approach has remained an experiment, which can come to an end at any moment. Indeed, during the last ten years, controls about the number and location of coffee-shops are signalling a less tolerant approach, and it may be possible that this “dutch institution” can disappear. But that’s another topic!


I was completely fascinated by Erik and the group of experts I met.  But it was Erik who offered me his friendship, inviting me to meet his family and spend time at his beautiful house in the countryside.  While writing this post, I am going through my illustrated journals: the dozen of sketchbooks that document my life, my interests, sorrows and happiness. But the entries about conversations or visits to Erik were uplifting, hopeful and full of notes on the topic.

ErikFrombergTo get to the Fromberg-De Bruijn’s family home one has to be prepared to be marveled:  The fields in that spring were crowned by gigantic clouds, the “low skies” of the Flemish and Dutch painters, small windmills cross the green landscape, the flowers were just announcing among canals, little rivers, like aquatic lines of a flat land. The house, an oasis! next to a little canal, the house itself is one of those fairy places, the big windows populated with plants and succulents and a tortoise nest; a nice fire warming the cozy drawing room/dinner room; African statuettes from their travels to Mali (the family did so much charity work there!); and a library full of fantastic books on art, drugs, chemistry, history and philosophy. My illustrated journal confirms the date:  5th of April, 2001.

Next to the journal entrance I wrote: “Eeen Vriend is iemand die om je geeft”   and this would be the first of many happy times spent in the company of the Fromberg-DeBruijn family…. As it happens, time and other issues made those visits less frequent, albeit we kept the annual ritual of a long Christmas letter and card. I promised once and again to go and visit them, I did not know he was ill so when I received the letter with the sad news, I got in shock!  Erik and the drugs research were once a key part of my life, I could not be what I am without that Ithaca of drugs policy research. I cannot think of any other topic that has enthused me as much as that… every discovery was a source of pleasure, each conversation with experts such as Erik was a gift, I dedicated almost 10 years of my life to understand what makes drugs a topic so controversial.  But in truth, and after all these years, meeting Erik Fromberg revealed me a life that was possible: the balance between a career and loving domesticity; the complement between being an studious scientist and an imaginative chef; the possibility of of holding prestige and at the same time being a loving, caring and generous friend!

Erik, thanks for being such an inspiring person. Siempre estaras en mi recuerdo y en mi corazon. Muy agradecida!




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