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Going Dutch | page 1, 2, 3

Data from the E.U.'s nonpartisan European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) show that in many other European countries (which do not have Dutch smoking coffee shops) consistently higher rates of drug use prevail (especially in Spain, the U.K. and Denmark), compared to the Netherlands.

Rates of problem drug use (defined by the EMCDDA as "intravenous or long duration/regular use of opiates, cocaine and/or amphetamines") are lower in the Netherlands than in Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the U.K. and Norway, and almost on a par with those reported in Germany, Austria, Finland and Sweden.

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"I wouldn't say drugs are banal," notes Frank Kuitenbrouwer of the NRC Handelsblad. "They're normal, we talk about them with our kids. The idea is not to criminalize or demonize drugs. Everyone agrees that tolerance has worked, but coffee shops are a nuisance and there has been a backlash."

In fact hundreds of operating licenses have been pulled from smoking coffee shops in the last five years because of complaints about public nuisance. Drug tourism in Dutch border cities routinely "disgusts" and "revolts" locals. "Amsterdam is not only the marijuana and marijuana seed capital of Europe," says Kuitenbrouwer, "it's also the ecstasy capital of Europe and that's something that really worries the Dutch and gives rise to public revulsion."

Is the sleaze -- the noise, the smell and the cat-and-mouse presence of organized crime -- engendered by smoking coffee shops worth it? Ultimately most Dutch seem to feel it is, though they are troubled by it and are the first to see its flaws. Kurt van Es of Het Parool cautions, however, that "The most disturbing thing for neighbors living around coffee shops is young people gathering outside, parking their cars or leaving the engine running to dash in and buy their stuff then go away again. But if you live near normal bars and pubs you have similar problems and I don't know whether you can say this is specific to coffee shops."

One key argument against the Dutch has long been that their policies are too culture-specific to be exported. However, after decades of resistance, the rest of the E.U. is now reluctantly adopting some elements of the Netherlands' drug policies, though each country's approach differs widely.

The EMCDDA remarks that Denmark does not prosecute for possession or supply of small quantities of cannabis, and gives users "warning" for "drugs other than cannabis." Imprisonment is reserved for offenses "involving supply for commercial reasons or organized trafficking."

Frank Kuitenbrower suggests that decades ago the Danes actually applied a similar "separation of hard and soft, but they didn't preach about it, whereas we Dutch had to make noise and use 'the lifted finger' to tell everyone that what we were doing was right. That's why we were reviled by the French and Germans in particular. Yet the Germans have now largely adopted the Dutch policy in big cities."

EMCDDA data confirm that Germany no longer prosecutes for use, import, export or possession of "insignificant quantities" of drugs; ditto Austria and Luxembourg. Ireland now levies fines for cannabis use. Sweden fines or requests users to seek counseling. In the United Kingdom, proceedings are often dropped for "possession of small quantities, occasional or personal use."

Spain and Italy apply "administrative sanctions" (fines, suspension of driver's license, etc.) for personal use -- de facto decriminalization. "There are laws under consideration to totally decriminalize drugs," says Dr. Silvia Zanone, an Italian drug policy consultant at the Social Affairs Ministry's Prevention and Rehabilitation Activities Coordination Unit in Rome.

Zanone, acknowledging Dutch influences on Italy, adds "there have been calls for the creation of something like the coffee shops. If drug use is completely decriminalized then logically there must be a legal way for people to get them other than the illegal trade in drugs. But all of these proposals have been held up for years in parliament."

In France "occasional users of illicit drugs" are now warned or referred to health or social care services. Michel Bouchet, head of the French Interior Ministry's Anti-Drug Commission, confirms that "the use of all drugs is illegal in France but that does not mean you'll waste away in prison if you take them."

He adds, however, that France rejects the notion of toleration or separating drugs into hard/soft, and is in opposition to most Dutch policies. "I do not think there are 'soft' or 'hard' drugs. It's difficult for there to be 'soft use' of hard drugs, and it's certain there is hard use of soft drugs." As the French government pushes citizens to stop smoking cigarettes and reduce drinking, fears of Dutch-style liberalization are compounded by perceived risks of increased domestic multiple-drug abuse (tobacco and alcohol plus narcotics), as well as higher synthetic-drug consumption.

It's tempting to wonder whether features of Dutch drug policy -- decriminalization of use combined with rehabilitation -- could work in America. Detractors point out that America's Puritan heritage makes it unlikely, an argument that, if it ever made sense, becomes steadily less compelling as the U.S. goes global, multiethnic and multicultural.

Consider the Dutch: like Americans, they're always ready to "raise the finger" and preach; their roots are in Calvinism, a Puritanical form of Protestantism. Ask the Dutch what country theirs most resembles and the overwhelming response is America. Holland, like America, is a dynamic, high-tech driven multiethnic hodgepodge of some 145 nationalities (nearly half Amsterdam's population is of non-Dutch origin). Certainly, the Netherlands resembles America more than it does Italy or Spain (Catholic cultures with millennial traditions) yet even these hidebound societies have moved toward liberalization.

"We need to provide alternatives to incarceration for first-time non-violent drug offenders, and others who are non-violent offenders a second time, who don't sell to kids and who aren't using weapons," admits Housman of the ONDCP, citing the Clinton administration's multibillion-dollar anti-drug education and rehabilitation campaigns. "We absolutely agree that we need to refocus the efforts of the criminal justice system with respect to drugs."

But while Congress and American law enforcement agencies contemplate whether to pursue the war on drugs or to emphasize decriminalization and rehabilitation, the Netherlands' smoking coffee shops will continue to fill with curious Americans. As a proud proprietor once told me, "Americans are some of our best customers."
salon.com | March 13, 2000

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About the writer
David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

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