Pubdate: Wed, 3 Feb 1999
Source: Little Rock Free Press (AR)
Author: Will Swagel


A baggy pants Vaudeville comic greets his funny-faced friend. "Just
back from Paris, Pal? How was it?"

"Great!" says the friend. "Eiffel Tower. Left Bank. But what got me
the most was the kids. So smart! Four, five years old and already
speaking French!"

It helps to remember this joke when talking to youngsters in the
Netherlands - a place where tolerance seems to be the official party
line, taught in school and church. Some version of harm reduction -
the philosophy of accepting some of society's blemishes so as not to
do more damage trying to stamp them out - is pretty universally
accepted in this northern European country of 15 million.

Remembering the punchline may even be more important when talking to
Amsterdam police officers or Dutch government ministers. Hearing a
detective express sympathy and acceptance of the hard drug addicts in
his midst - you have to remember it's part him, of course, but partly
the way he was raised. The same when you hear a Dutch member of the
European Parliament state proudly that she helped establish cannabis
coffeeshops earlier in her political career.

They make it hard not to be ashamed of the United States, where the
percentage of citizens in prison (approaching 2 million) is the
highest in the developed world - nearly that of Russia, according to
figures compiled by the Sentencing Project. Where politicians advocate
draconian Prohibitions of increasing numbers of behaviors to win
elections. And where, despite these policies (or because of them)
rates of youth drug use and abortions soar.

Back in the Cafe Ebeling, I am telling Amsterdam sociologist Bart van
Heerikhuizen that in Alaska, a man was sentenced to life in prison
without the possibility of parole for growing marijuana in commercial
quantities. I tell van Heerikhuizen - the father of a 17-year-old and
a 13-year-old - that in my home town, a teenager was charged with a
felony for having residue in a marijuana pipe on the school grounds -
making him have to - at the very least - answer "yes" to that question
on job applications and submit to drug testing for the rest of his

"Shouldn't you include this in your article, too?" van Heerikhuizen all but
cries out. "It is so strange for a Dutch person to hear this kind of
thing!" Later van Heerikhuizen tells me the Dutch have an expression for
U.S.-style Prohibition: "Mopping the floor when the faucet is running."

"The normal American citizen has such an idiotic picture of drugs,"
says Herman-Louis Matser, who works with recreational drug users for
an Amsterdam drug policy and service organization, Adviesburo Drugs.
"Such a prejudice has nothing to do with the truth. Because people are
told lies, now you have to act as though the lies are true?"

The Dutch get angry when you question their tolerance - an important
part of a national identity they sometimes claim not to have. Question
their beliefs and you run the risk of hearing criticisms of such
"Americanisms" such as the "24-hour economy"(the Dutch close shops at
6:00pm and aren't open on Sundays), welfare "reform" and employee downsizing.

The Dutch themselves say their tolerance and willingness to accept
new, and often disquieting developments, stem from being a small
nation, dependent on trade with often more powerful partners.

"When you have to make a deal with someone, you don't talk about your
political preference or your religious preference," van Heerikhuizen

"The Dutch government is more pragmatic than most governments, they
look at things in a very real way," says Susan LaPolice, a former U.S.
Midwesterner who has spent five years in Holland working with cannabis
coffeeshop and seed companies and is now importing and distributing
hemp products in Europe and the U.S. "They look at harm reduction -
what is the least harm to society and they control things from that.
Not from a Puritan attitude. As realists."

I've caught Hedy D'Ancona on a good day, A former Dutch minister of
health and now a Netherlands representative to the European
parliament, D'Ancona's Social Democrats and the liberal Left in
general gained substantial ground in Holland's multi-party election
just days before I spoke with her.

"All over Europe, things are liberalizing," D'Ancona says. "Ireland,
Greece and Portugal - traditionally among the most repressive
countries in Europe toward abortion and other moral issues - have
loosened their grip. Even hyper-critical France seems to be coming
over to a Dutch-style tolerance in questions of soft drug use. Now,
only Sweden stands out as a bulwark of Prohibitionist policies."

"In Ireland, homosexuality was forbidden," D'Ancona notes, "and now it
is forbidden also to discriminate."

"(Marijuana decriminalization), you can say they made that more formal
in Belgium and Italy and they are busy doing that in Spain and
Portugal," she says. "You can smoke marijuana and you are not in
court. Except Sweden."

D'Ancona has always supported the cannabis coffeeshops, but shares the
view of many other Netherlanders that there was not enough regulation
of the establishments at the beginning and too many opened in too
short a time - a number of them in Amsterdam, catering largely to drug
tourists from the United States and England. But this doesn't make
D'Ancona back off from her long-held beliefs.

"I am in favor of the coffeeshops for harm reduction," she says.
"Because on the street corner today, no marijuana. Only heroin and
cocaine. Our deepest purpose was to separate (hard and soft drugs) and
we succeeded in that."

Western societies that wish to follow the Dutch lead may have
problems, says Amsterdam clinical psychologist Andre Tuinier, who
could represent the leading edge of tolerance for drug use. The editor
of the psychiatry and sociology journal, the Deviant, this former
member of the 1960's protest group the Provos, now teaches and works
with drug user organizations.

"There is very limited room for the idea that using drugs can be an
expression of curiosity or can be a very legitimate defense against
the invasion of our mind by the dominant culture," he says. "Together
with a number of advanced control mechanisms, the dominant culture
that has taken root in the West includes the idea that you should only
have one consciousness."

"The counterculture is no longer a starting point for unity," Tuinier
rues. "The defense of people who want to use (drugs) is very weak. I
always hear some arguments in terms of harm reduction - that marijuana
or heroin is not harmful. I want to see arguments showing that it can
be clearly beneficial. And the same goes for (psychoactive) mushrooms
and tea. We have to defend the right to (do it) and not just be reactive."

America's influence on Dutch drug use has been profound. Oregon and
California marijuana growers originally developed the strains of
high-potency pot the Dutch have been perfecting. American hard drug
users popularized IV heroin use in a population that had been smoking
the drug. Defending U.S, policies is an easy way to pick a fight with
Susan LaPolice. "Separating hard and soft drugs is the first step,"
she says. "Bless your dying day that American youth are smoking
marijuana and not taking the harder stuff."

LaPolice's fear is that the police pressure targeted on marijuana,
psychedelic mushrooms and other soft drugs - along with disinformation
campaigns - make it harder for experimental-minded youth to make wise
choices. Hard drug users and their advocates say the more difficult
and expensive hard drugs are to obtain, the greater the problems with
associated crime, overdoses and increased rates of use. The equation
works beyond just drugs. Arrests of prostitutes, say advocates of "sex
workers", only drives the problem into dark corners where both
prostitutes and clients may be harmed.

"It's always a game of cat and mouse," says Joep de Groot, a veteran
police officer, who's seen it all in his three-plus decades patrolling
Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District. "The police can't win. You
don't want them to win."

"That's the problem I think with the American police," he says. "They
think they can win. But if you win, you lose. Because if you win, you
are causing more problems."

"Better to have a few drug victims than an intolerant society," says
Adviesburo's Matser. I tell him in the U.S. we're told we need to
sacrifice the few addicts to protect the whole of society from drugs.

"You think you sacrifice the few," Matser counters. "But you sacrifice
it all. Because the whole society gets the sickness."
- ---
MAP posted-by: derek rea