Pubdate: Wed, 28 Apr 2004
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: The Scotsman Publications Ltd 2004
Author: Anthony Deutsch, In Amsterdam


PLANS to tighten up the Netherlands' famously liberal attitude towards
cannabis have met with strong resistance by local authorities across
the country.

The ruling conservative coalition drafted the new tougher drugs policy
in the face of evidence showing a sharp increase in the potency of
marijuana openly sold in many towns.

The prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende's cabinet proposed to reduce
the number of "coffee shops" where marijuana is sold and to ban sales
of cannabis to foreign tourists in border areas.

For nearly 30 years, small quantities of marijuana and hashish have
been sold at coffee shops.

Though the practice is tolerated, cannabis remains a controlled
substance and technically its sale and use is illegal.

But the policy has been met with opposition by the Association of
Netherlands Municipalities which said the move threatens to undermine
years of successful drugs control.

Lex Estveld, a policy adviser, said the government was trying to fix a
system that was not broken. "The entire Dutch drugs policy of
controlling and containing soft drugs has proven reasonably successful
in recent decades. If you ask me, we haven't done bad when you compare
us to other countries," he said yesterday.

In its policy statement to parliament, the cabinet called for research
into the health risks of higher potency cannabis amid concerns over a
sharp increase in the content of THC, the active chemical of the
cannabis plant.

If tests indicate the more powerful cannabis is psychologically
damaging, it could be reclassified as a banned drug like cocaine and
heroin, the cabinet statement said.

The cabinet acknowledged the long-standing policy of toleration had
not led to higher rates of marijuana use. But it said "the strong
increase in THC content, and the link between cannabis users and
psychological disorders, is a reason for concern".

The average percentage of THC in Dutch marijuana called Nederwiet, the
most popular on the market, has doubled in three years to 18 per cent,
said the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction. The
most potent hashish now has a THC content of up to 66 per cent, it

Under the government plan, the southern town Maastricht, bordering
Germany and Belgium, will conduct a trial of the policy barring the
sale of marijuana and hashish to tourists. It was not clear whether
customers would have to produce proof of Dutch nationality.

A joint statement issued by 483 municipalities said the proposed
measures would force the marijuana business underground.

"The tone of the letter is too influenced by foreign [opinions] and
gives insufficient credit to the successes of local coffee shop
policies," said the statement. "Concentrating the trade in soft drugs
at coffee shops has the clear benefit of making it transparent and

Roughly 780 coffee shops exist in the Netherlands, but half are in the
three big cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. About 80 per
cent of municipalities do not permit coffee shops. Government figures
say the number of people who have tried marijuana in the Netherlands
ranks in the middle of a range of EU countries, the United States and
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