Pubdate: Sun, 01 Jan 2006
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2006 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Ken Dilanian, Inquirer Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Popular)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Harm Reduction)


Marijuana Can Be Sold and Smoked in the Netherlands, but Not Grown or 
Shipped. Wider Legalization Is Debated.

AMSTERDAM - Paul Wilhelm speaks about marijuana the way a vintner 
might discuss wine. He talks of aroma, taste and texture, of 
flowering periods, of the pros and cons of hydroponic cultivation.

Wilhelm's connoisseurship might earn him a long prison sentence in 
the United States, but here in the Netherlands, he's just another 
taxpaying businessman. He owns a long-established pot emporium - the 
Dutch call them "coffee shops" - where customers can sidle up to the 
bar, peruse a detailed menu, and choose from 22 variations of 
fragrant marijuana and 18 types of potent hash.

Business got even better after Wilhelm's shop, the Dampkring, was 
featured in 2004 in the film Ocean's Twelve.

And yet life is not as simple for Wilhelm as it is for the pub owner 
down the street, thanks to the contradictory nature of Holland's 
famously liberal drug laws. Though the business is duly licensed and 
regulated, to run it properly he is forced to flout the law on a 
daily basis. While the Netherlands allows the sale of small amounts 
of marijuana in coffee shops, it is still illegal to grow marijuana, 
store it, and transport it in the kind of quantities that any popular 
shop requires.

Last month, the Dutch parliament began debating a proposal to change 
that by launching a pilot project to regulate marijuana growing. It 
was the brainchild of the mayor of Maastricht, a city near the German 
and Belgian borders that is plagued by gangs of smugglers. Proponents 
argue that legalizing growing will drive out most of the criminal 
element and boost responsible purveyors.

"The current policy is schizophrenic," Wilhelm said. "Under the 
rules, we can only keep 500 grams in the shop at any one time, so 
that means I have to have more delivered every few hours. And if the 
delivery guy gets stopped, they take everything, and he gets arrested."

For years, that odd state of affairs seemed to work well, because it 
allowed the Dutch to tolerate marijuana without having to risk the 
opprobrium that would come from legalizing it. But organized crime 
has come to play an increasing role in production, the government has found.

A majority in parliament has come out in favor of the bill to 
decriminalize growing, reflecting widespread Dutch comfort with a 
liberal marijuana policy. But the ruling Christian Democratic Party, 
which has increasingly tightened the rules on coffee shops, opposes 
it. Analysts expect the government to block implementation even if 
the measure passes.

"It won't solve anything," said Ivo Hommes, a spokesman for the 
justice ministry. "You will still have a large amount of people that 
will grow marijuana for illegal sales and for international export."

Though they consider the bill a good first step, Wilhelm and other 
coffee-shop owners agree. What they really want is full legalization 
of cannabis. Polls show that a majority of Dutch support that, but 
the government says it would run afoul of the international narcotics 
conventions that the Netherlands and most other nations have signed.

Whatever the fate of the legislation, the Dutch debate underscores a 
schism in the developed world over how to deal with drug use.

Even as the United States continues to spend tens of billions of 
dollars each year fighting a war on drugs that lately has included an 
increasing number of marijuana arrests, much of Europe and Canada 
have instead opted to treat drug use as a public-health problem.

While no country has gone as far as the Netherlands and allowed open 
sales of marijuana, in most of Europe possession of small amounts of 
cannabis, and even cocaine and heroin, merits only a fine. And 
penalties for drug dealing are far lower than in the United States.

Rejecting the approach that has filled America's jails with 
nonviolent drug offenders, Europeans and Canadians have embraced the 
concept of "harm reduction," which argues that illegal drug use is 
impossible to stamp out, and therefore the best public policy is to 
minimize the damage to society.

A central tenet of this approach is giving out clean needles to drug 
addicts to prevent the spread of HIV - something that remains 
controversial in the United States but is common in Europe and Canada.

But it goes further: Several countries allow government-funded 
"consumption rooms" for drug users, to provide them with social 
services and dissuade them from using drugs on the street. And at 
least four countries - Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and 
Spain - have programs under which the government gives heroin to 
hard-core addicts and lets them inject themselves in a 
government-sponsored facility.

That idea is profoundly controversial, but the Swiss, who pioneered 
the practice a decade ago, insist that it has dramatically reduced 
drug deaths and street crime by addict participants, who no longer 
have to steal or mug to feed their habits.

Antonio Costa, an Italian who heads the United Nations Office of 
Drugs and Crime in Vienna, has little patience for Europe's tolerant 
stance, which he believes is behind a recent upswing in cocaine use 
in the region. While overall European drug use has never been as high 
as that in the United States, American rates have been falling while 
European rates have been rising.

Many other Europeans, though, shake their heads at what they consider 
a moralistic, absolutist mind-set among America's drug warriors.

It's not that there is no common ground: Even the Dutch arrest drug 
smugglers (including marijuana traffickers), and in July the Dutch 
government signed a cooperation agreement with Washington.

But the Dutch coffee-shop policy is grounded in a belief that is 
anathema to American drug enforcers: that cannabis is no more harmful 
than alcohol. Dutch experts argue that this remains true even though 
much of the marijuana grown these days is far more potent than the 
kind smoked by the flower children of the 1960s.

American officials have long sought to discredit Europe's more 
liberal drug policies, and the Dutch experience in particular - 
sometimes with a selective use of statistics.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, for example, takes aim in an 
anti-legalization paper on its Web site under a subheading, "Europe's 
More Liberal Drug Policies Are Not the Right Model for America."

The agency points out that from 1984 to 1996, marijuana use doubled 
among 18- to 25-year-olds in Holland. What it doesn't say is that 
marijuana use in the Netherlands has been stable since then, and it 
remains lower than in the United States, which has seen use rise from 
a low in 1992.

Indeed, 30 years after the Netherlands began allowing open marijuana 
sales, only about 3 percent of the Dutch population - or 408,000 
people - use marijuana in a given year, compared with 8.6 percent - 
or 25.5 million - Americans, according to the most authoritative 
surveys by both governments.

Dutch health officials say there is no evidence that the country's 
tolerant marijuana policy encourages use of harder drugs, which here 
is about average compared with the rest of Europe, and far lower than 
in the United States. To the contrary, proponents argue, the policy 
is designed to separate hard drugs from soft, because coffee shops 
found selling hard drugs are shut down.

In the United States, meanwhile, the war on drugs has increasingly 
become a war on pot.

A study of FBI data released last year by a Washington-based think 
tank, the Sentencing Project, found that between 1992 and 2002, 
marijuana arrests rose from 28 percent of all drug arrests to 45 
percent, while the proportion of heroin and cocaine cases dropped 
from 55 percent of all drug arrests to less than 30 percent.

The rationale behind such a crackdown mystifies Dutch cannabis 
aficionados such as Wilhelm. He doesn't argue that marijuana is 
harmless. But he sees every day that it can be enjoyed recreationally 
and responsibly, just like alcohol.

"I've got three daughters, and I want to know that if they do try 
marijuana, they're not going to get it where someone is going to 
offer them some cocaine or an ecstasy pill," Wilhelm said. "I don't 
say that marijuana is healthy, but it's there. You can't close your 
eyes and think that if you lock everybody up, it's going to disappear." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake