Pubdate: 3-16 Feb 1999
Source: The Little Rock Free Press (AR)
Copyright: 1999 The Little Rock Free Press
Author: Will Swagel
Note: The Little Rock Free Press is a bi-weekly 'Newspaper for the Rest of Us'



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

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 life.

"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 explains.

"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

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

"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

"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."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake