This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 3, 1996. Partner content is not updated.
There is still the Van Gogh museum, of course. And plenty of tourists stroll along the canals of the red-light district, giggling at the windows of sex for sale and the dulled Asian hookers who barely lick their lips in return.
Holland Tightens Drug Laws
There is still the Van Gogh museum, of course. And plenty of tourists stroll along the canals of the red-light district, giggling at the windows of sex for sale and the dulled Asian hookers who barely lick their lips in return. But the thousands of youths who descended on Amsterdam for annual celebrations marking the May, 1945, end to Nazi occupation seemed most drawn by another of the city's famous pleasures: its "coffee shops," where the haze of second-hand smoke gives an intoxicating, head-swelling aroma of marijuana or hashish, and police obligingly stare the other way. The icons may be a throwback: faces of long-dead pop stars Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix peer dreamily down from posters on the coffee shop walls. Prices on the menu cards may keep rising: $20 now for a tiny zip-locked packet of grass, stamped with a logo showing its country of origin. But the kids keep coming to this mecca of anything goes. And on Liberation Day, when they spilled - smiling, a bit bleary - from the coffee shops into the streets, they turned Amsterdam into a drunken, stoned public rave. Not exactly what Canadian soldiers had in mind when they fought to free Holland half a century ago.
The kids had better get their dancing in now, because there is pressure to bring back the chaperones. Twenty years after the Dutch began their unique policy of "tolerance" towards soft drugs - illegal but not indictable - that indulgence is under attack as never before, partly from the Dutch themselves but mostly from grumpy neighbors. And though there is hardly a whiff of puritanism in the sickly sweet air, there is consensus that the drug policy needs tightening. "Most Dutchmen feel those coffee shops stink, and I think they are right," says Prime Minister Wim Kok. He describes the growing number of illegal coffee shops and the drug tourists they attract as a "nuisance."
Far worse than that, say Holland's aggrieved European neighbors. "A narco-state" was the hyperbolic description of The Netherlands offered by one French legislator, blaming his country's exploding drug problem on the cheap price and easy availability of heroin and pills just up the highway in Dutch cities. In March, the French government reimposed controls along its border with Belgium and Luxembourg, the main routes to Holland - a sniffy show of displeasure in what is supposed to be passport-free Western Europe. And a damning report from the United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board has questioned Holland's "fidelity" to its international commitments on drug control. The coffee shops' huge demand for cannabis supplies has opened the door to organized crime, says the report, which also slammed the Dutch for "tolerating" the boom in do-it-yourself botany that produces and exports nederwiet, a potent homegrown weed.
The Dutch government called the accusations baseless. (Kok described French President Jacques Chirac's views on the subject as "highly emotional and not balanced.") But as a small country of 15 million people in an ever more interdependent Europe, it had to listen to its neighbors' complaints. The government responded by pledging to close about half of the estimated 2,000 coffee shops. Limits on the sale of cannabis for personal use will drop from 30 g to five. And, with no desire to become known as a major marijuana exporter, Holland promised a crackdown on large-scale nederwiet growers.
But the Dutch stand by the cornerstones of their 1976 policy. Addiction to hard drugs such as heroin is a health problem, they say, not a criminal one. And they contend that soft drugs are not a major health threat, so their use should be tolerated under controlled circumstances. The crux of the policy is a belief that the soft and hard drug markets can be separated. Advocates contend that coffee shops, which are banned from selling hard drugs, remain the best way to insulate pot smokers from the hardened criminal subculture that feeds off cocaine and heroin. "Everyone in Holland accepts that you must have a sufficient number of outlets to meet a demand for cannabis that is already there," says Hans van Mastrigt, an addiction policy official with Rotterdam's health service. "Otherwise you just drive the business underground, where you can't control it."
Statistics suggest that the number of Dutch drug users - both hard and soft - is about average for Europe. "Holland's cannabis use is somewhat above average, but not in a class of its own," says Richard Hartnoll, head of epidemiology at the European Union's drug monitoring centre. Hartnoll argues that the Dutch experience proves there is no connection between winking at pot smoking and the number of hard-drug users. In fact, he says, "politicians overrate the effect of their policies on the prevalence of drug use and drug addiction altogether." Dutch officials demur, pointing to the higher average age of their addict population (about 33) as evidence that the free methadone and clean needles they offer heroin addicts have lengthened their lives. And fewer Dutch youths are getting hooked. "Heroin is no longer a glamor drug," says van Mastrigt. That dubious honor falls to the "designer drug" Ecstasy, and Holland's neighbors accuse the country of becoming a leading producer of that pharmaceutical as well.
But if Holland's own levels of drug abuse are not out of control, why the fuss? Part of the answer lies in the colorless suburban housing blocks outside French cities such as Paris and Lille, where heroin use is growing, particularly, officials say, among the North African immigrant community. Chirac has laid the blame on the Dutch, suggesting that drugs of all kinds are pouring through the continent's biggest port in Rotterdam, abetted by lax Dutch law enforcement. Chirac carefully omits mentioning his own government's evidence that drugs enter France from all sides, but the European agency's Hartnoll notes with a laugh that "the French government's own data doesn't justify what their politicians are saying."
The Dutch don't like the burgeoning French market either, and wish its addicts would stay home. A backlash has developed in those parts of Holland swamped by drug tourists, and it sparked violence last year in the Rotterdam inner-city neighborhood of Spangen. Home to large numbers of North African and Middle Eastern immigrants, Spangen acquired a reputation as a place to buy good-quality heroin cheap. Addicts and pushers began making the 200- km drive from Lille to Rotterdam, turning the neighborhood into an outdoor drug dispensary. When Rotterdam police were slow to respond, residents decided to clean up Spangen themselves.
In what they called "the action," they closed streets to cars with foreign licences and stoned those that ran their barricades. "We told people with French plates to buy their drugs elsewhere," says Reinus Vis, 47, a lifelong Spangen resident who helped organize the protest. One night last summer, says Vis with an enigmatic smile, his community group quietly told police to stay away, pulled a dozen or so stubborn junkies from a particularly hard-core drug den, and burned the house down. No charges were laid.
With his powerful build and greying hair pulled into a ponytail, Vis looks like a middle-aged biker. In fact, he is a bar owner, and before that was a taxi driver, who knows every cranny of his neighborhood. "We had 151 drug houses in Spangen before the action. Now we have 31," he said while driving past its rows of apartments and concrete playgrounds, pointing out dealers he knows. "But they're coming back. Sometimes I think we should just legalize hard drugs because it would take the criminals out of the game. But then you'd get all the junkies from France and Germany coming here. If you legalize it here," he says, "you have to legalize it everywhere in Europe."
That's the rub. The European Union's borders are coming down faster than the laws and social policies of its 15 countries can be harmonized. By leading in liberalizing its approach, Holland risks becoming a drug ghetto for all of Europe. In fact, the Dutch government wistfully noted in a report last fall that the best way to defang the criminal gangs would be to make the government the sole cannabis supplier. But unless other countries followed, the authorities conceded, they would just attract more drug tourism with all its associated petty crime and nuisance. No matter how much the Dutch would like to see the rest of Europe adopt their ideals, Holland, noted the report, "has less scope for influencing the European debate than is sometimes thought."
The result is an old-style European alley fight, one more case of friction as national cultures collide on the road to European unity. "Who does Chirac think he is, telling us to stop selling drugs? Did he stop exploding nuclear weapons when the world asked him to?" asked a young Suriname-born drug dealer named Mohamed, openly doling out packets of crack cocaine to jangled customers in a Rotterdam church basement. The church welcomes Mohamed and his stash as part of a program aimed at getting addicts off the street. It even has two rooms for smoking crack and shooting heroin - the Dutch policy of separation of markets carried to the extreme - and its presence is proof that the Dutch have not lost their willingness to experiment with solutions to drug abuse. "For a while, I worried that we had lost our tolerant attitudes towards drug users," said van Mastrigt as he sipped a beer in a Rotterdam cafe. "Last year, people were saying: 'We don't want any drug users or dealers here anymore.'" But the old Europe reasserted itself. "Now, they are just saying: 'We don't want any foreign drug users here.'"
Maclean's June 3, 1996