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Going Dutch
Can America learn from the Netherlands' drug policy of tolerance and ambiguity?

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By David Downie

March 13, 2000 | The pungent perfume of grass wafts down the Amsterdam street where you walk, under shade trees on a curving canal fronted by landmark brick buildings. You look up, nostrils flaring. Neon lights wink from the facades of cafes with names like the Grasshopper, Dutch Flowers or the Bulldog.

Better known as "smoking coffee shops," these Dutch dope dens dispense soft drugs, marijuana and hashish, to a mixed bag of customers. Tourists and locals saunter in then stagger out in a cloud of smoke. Inside the air is blue. People puff and joke, some of them laughing crazily, others digging into snacks while lounging in armchairs. Seventies rock alternates with cool jazz and house music. Soft-drug menus are passed from behind the bar, where an "ethical dealer" has just delivered half a kilo of "skunk nederwiet" -- the Netherlands' prized, domestically grown high-THC power weed.

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A couple of bucks buys you a joint of it. Even if you don't light up your head begins to spin from a contact high. You glance around nervously, expecting the cops to show up. But they don't. And they won't. As long as the coffee shop plays by the rules.

That's where the confusion comes in. Popular misconceptions about the Dutch approach to consuming and regulating drugs have remained firmly rooted across Europe and America since the Dutch began liberalizing drug-use policies in 1975.

It's true that you can still smoke grass or even shoot up without fear of punishment in Holland. But drugs, even marijuana and hash, have never been legal, are not legal now and are unlikely ever to be legalized in the Netherlands. Like Americans, most Dutch want drugs to remain illegal; unlike Americans, the Dutch are realistic about who should go to jail.

The Dutch are progressively tightening the screws: The number of drug-related arrests in Holland -- many involving the booming synthetic drugs trade -- has more than doubled since 1995. Lately the Dutch Ministry of Justice has even begun using the outdated and inaccurate American nomenclature "war on drugs" in reference to their efforts to fight international drug trafficking. That's in part because the Netherlands has become not only Europe's cannabis and cannabis-seed capital, but also a major production, warehousing and shipping center for ecstasy (and related synthetic drugs), as well as a transit country for heroin and cocaine.

The popular misconception about the Netherlands' drug policy -- that anything goes -- stems from two quintessentially Dutch attitudes that have underpinned Dutch society for the last 400 years: tolerance and ambiguity. Tolerance, which the Dutch call "gedogen," has been a way of life since the Catholic-Protestant religious strife of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Drugs -- alcohol, tobacco and opiates -- have been tolerated at least that long. Scholars now point out that the merrymakers in the fanciful Golden Age paintings of Jan Steen (1626-1679) and Adriaen Brouwer (active 1620s-30s) appear to be more than merely drunk as they stagger, swoon and grope through atmospheric inns and taverns.

They may well be tripping, too. Indeed, historians wonder whether the Golden Age Dutch mixed narcotics with their tobacco. The institution of the Brown Cafe -- so called because the walls of such places haven't been scrubbed since the Golden Age -- is still going strong, booze and cigarettes being the demons of choice.

And demons they are: In its November 1999 report, "Drug Policy in the Netherlands," the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (MHWS) clearly states that "the social and health damage that results from alcohol abuse and alcoholism [in the Netherlands] is many times greater than the damage resulting from drug use."

As it relates to narcotics today, the Dutch sense of tolerance means that use of small quantities (5 grams or less) of "soft drugs" -- marijuana and hashish -- is not a criminal offence. Use of even smaller quantities (0.5 grams) of "hard drugs" -- cocaine, heroin, ecstasy -- is also tolerated, though users will be referred to rehabilitation centers, and repeat offenders can be forced to choose between long-term detoxification or prison.

Here's where the ambiguity comes in: Use is not a crime but possession of any drugs, hard or soft, is. More ambiguity: Possession of small quantities for personal use (5 grams and 0.5 grams, as per above) is generally tolerated, unless the user is a repeat offender or a troublemaker (i.e., causes a public nuisance). In any event, all illicit drugs, no matter how small the quantity, found during police searches of persons or places are systematically confiscated. The number of searches and seizures continues to rise dramatically. Importing, exporting, selling, trafficking, manufacturing or growing any illicit drugs is also a crime subject to fines (5,000 to 1 million Dfl, or $2,500 to $500,000) and/or imprisonment (four to 16 years).

Related to this is another series of ambiguous facts to put in your pipe and smoke. The country's 861 "smoking coffee shops" (290 in Amsterdam alone) are allowed to sell adult clients (18 and over) small amounts (5 grams per person per transaction) of soft drugs. But in theory they can't advertise the drugs, can't sell alcohol on the same premises, can't allow clients to cause a public nuisance, can't sell drugs for take-out use or have more soft drugs on hand than the coffee shop conceivably needs to supply clients' daily demands (500 grams, just over a pound).

. Next page | Many of the shops may be controlled by organized crime

Photograph by PictureQuest

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