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Going Dutch | page 1, 2, 3

But if importing or growing dope is illegal, you might ask, how do these legitimate establishments get their supplies? The question makes Dutch government officials queasy. "This is the inherent paradox of the Dutch drug policy," says Frank Kuitenbrouwer, a legal commentator and member of the editorial board of the NRC Handelsblad, a leading centrist Dutch newspaper. "It's known as the front-door/back-door problem: if the Dutch government tolerates people going in the front door of the coffee shop, what about the back door, the supply?"

Unofficially, police authorities allow "ethical dealers" -- individual small-scale suppliers untainted by international trafficking rings -- to handle transactions. But an Amsterdam city official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me he believes that 90 percent of smoking coffee shops in the city are controlled by organized crime.

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This is where tolerance and ambiguity become dangerous. "The front-door/back-door policy has created an enormous amount of organized crime in Holland," confirms reporter Kurt van Es, a drug specialist at Amsterdam's top daily Het Parool, and pro-legalization author of a book on smoking coffee shops and soft drugs. "The Dutch have become the Colombians of marijuana and hash trafficking in Europe."

The Netherlands is a major marijuana growing country (of plants and, especially, seeds for export). Estimates are that if they were allowed to, Dutch growers could supply about 75 percent of domestic demand, thereby undercutting organized crime. But Dutch anti-drug squads systematically root out hemp plantations, and growing will probably remain illegal due partly to pressure from the E.U. and America. "This is a very bizarre situation," adds van Es, "but somehow we don't dare take the further step of legalizing the trade of soft drugs at coffee shops or other points of sale -- bars or pharmacies."

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Curiously, at the perfumed floating Flower Market in central Amsterdam you can tiptoe through tulips and buy blooms in any season -- and marijuana starter kits. They sell for about 15 Dfl, around $7.50. Follow instructions and you get smokeable, albeit weedy, plants in about 10 days. You see pot plants on cozy barges along picturesque canals, and on the window sills of old brick houses. Illegal? Yes, but tolerated. The Dutch officially call their confusing brand of ambiguity regarding drugs "The Expediency Principle." That means officers and officials can decide case-by-case whether it's in the public interest to arrest or detain drug users, growers and suppliers.

In recent years another recreational substance has sprung up in the forest of Dutch ambiguity: magic mushrooms. The Dutch call them "paddos" or "smart drugs." They are sold dried, powdered or as spore starter kits at dozens of New Agey stores (they're most popular in Amsterdam). Many smart drug boutiques also sell mescaline, and boast pause-for-thought names like "Conscious Dreams." Attempts to regulate them are under study (they may soon become illegal, but tolerated). The Dutch MWHS concedes that "no reliable data is available on the scale of [their] use."

The ultimate stated goal of the Dutch government's drug policies is to "protect the health of individual users, the people around them and society as a whole," according to the Ministry of Justice. In concrete terms that translates into decriminalizing -- while actively discouraging -- personal drug use; separating the markets and use-patterns of "soft" and "hard" drugs; keeping all drug users out of jail; rehabilitating and reintegrating addicts rather than repressing and punishing them; controlling the trafficking, import, export, manufacturing and growing of illicit drugs.

This approach is markedly different from America's $18 billion a year war on drugs, better known to many in Holland as "the John Wayne" approach. Of the 2 million U.S. prison population, 500,000 are non-violent drug offenders (though the classification is itself ambiguous). The prevailing view in the U.S. appears to be that there should be no distinction between soft and hard drugs, that "use is abuse" and that tolerance leads to increased use of drugs of all kinds.

The Dutch have been applying their imperfect methods -- like other countries they seem unable to control organized crime or ecstasy/amphetamine production and use -- to fighting narcotics for about 25 years. By a variety of measures (notably habitual use and addiction rates) they appear to be working. For example, it's estimated Dutch authorities reach 75-80 percent of heroin users. After rising sharply from 10,000 in 1979 their number has hovered between 25,000-28,000 for years and is falling as addicts' average age (currently 36) increases. Dutch rehab efforts are applauded by European, and even American, drug-control agencies.

The Dutch argue that there is no statistical evidence to suggest tolerance has spawned a "drug culture," or that soft drugs dispensed by smoking coffee shops are a "gateway" leading to hard drugs. But U.S. officials disagree. "I don't think the argument is premised on, is marijuana a gateway drug?" says Rob Housman, assistant director of strategic planning at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in Washington.

"I'm insisting that marijuana on its own is not benign. That marijuana has dramatic, terrible consequences for large numbers of the youths that use it and independent of any other impact on any other drug, those are risks that are unacceptable for America's kids. Separate from that, does societal acceptance of drugs, hard or soft, create an attitude that in turn leads to other drug use?"

The answer, according to the ONDCP, is yes. However, according to the November Dutch MHWS report, the percentage of Dutch adults (age 12 and over) that have used cocaine is 2.1 percent in the Netherlands, compared to 10.5 percent in the U.S. -- five times as high. Cannabis has been used by 15.6 percent of Dutch (age 12 and over) while the U.S. figure is 32.9 percent for the same age group.

The U.S. contests the validity of these data, citing incomparable survey methods. "I don't think we ought to worry about whether there is a bigger Dutch problem or a bigger U.S. drug problem," notes Housman of the ONDCP. "The problem is we all have a problem. We have different approaches. What is acceptable, what is workable within one society, may not be the right solution for another society."

. Next page | The country the Netherlands most resembles is America

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