HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html OPED -- Do We Want A High Society?
Pubdate: Sat, 10 Jun 2000
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2000, The Globe and Mail Company


More and more Canadian officials think a little marijuana may not be such a
bad thing. Look at the Dutch: they've embraced it for nearly 25 years,
without turning into a land of blissed out dope fiends

Amid clouds of powerful marijuana smoke and blaring techno music, an
exuberant parade of a couple thousand dishevelled, thoroughly stoned
drug lovers inched through the city centre on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Tourists couldn't help but gawk. Locals, however, barely raised an
eyebrow. "They're enjoying themselves, they're not causing any
trouble," a well-dressed hotel proprietor shrugged as the raucous
procession -- an annual demonstration to support legalizing all drugs
- -- shuffled peacefully past.

Leading the way were two police officers, sipping pop as they chatted
with the revellers.

Rubbing shoulders with a horde of scruffy drug users may not be exactly
what Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino had in mind last week when he told
The Globe and Mail: "I don't think every case involving a minute amount of
marijuana needs to go through the criminal-justice system."

Nor does Chief Fantino seem enamoured of the Dutch practice of turning
a blind eye to casual cannabis use, still technically illegal in the
Netherlands. He has said that as long as Canada's marijuana laws are
in place, they should be enforced.

But where Dutch authorities would agree with Chief Fantino -- rarely
accused of mollycoddling criminals during his 31-year career -- is on
the contention that the pursuit and prosecution of pot smokers is a
waste of police resources.

Better to issue a ticket or put chronic smokers through a
court-ordered treatment program, the police chief suggests.

While Ontario Premier Mike Harris said on Wednesday that he opposes
such a move, Chief Fantino is not alone. Weary of the seemingly
endless U.S.-led war on drugs, many Western countries are questioning
the need for strict enforcement.

Such doubts are not new in Canada. It was in 1973 that the LeDain
Commission on illicit drugs urged that criminal sanctions for drug
users (as opposed to dealers) be gradually withdrawn.

Later, the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Council of
Churches supported cannabis decriminalization -- not to be confused
with legalization. Decriminalization would mean that although the law
would stay on the books, it would not saddle offenders with a criminal
record, similar to a minor traffic infraction.

At street level, many Canadian police reached the same conclusion long
ago. Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, fingerprinting is
no longer mandatory for users found with less than 30 grams of the
drugs. And in many jurisdictions, a common police response upon
discovering a couple of marijuana joints is to simply toss them away.

Data from 1998, nonetheless, show that the number of cannabis charges
in Canada rose 6 per cent compared with 1997, even as crime overall
plunged 17 per cent.

Hence the interest in the Dutch policy, which for decades has
distinguished soft drugs from hard ones, and users from dealers and

At the same time, the Amsterdam parade's colourful blend of uniformed
officers and joint-puffing party animals underlines the peculiar no
man's land created when cannabis is decriminalized.

Most drugs are as illegal in the Netherlands as they are everywhere
else. But Dutch laws against personal use are rarely enforced, whether
it be for cannabis, ecstasy, a cap of heroin or a rock of crack cocaine.

Instead, under guidelines that stress harm reduction rather than
penalization, the drugs simply get confiscated.

Like plenty of other Europeans, the Dutch are aghast at the U.S. war
on drugs, which has helped swell the U.S. prison population tenfold in
the past 20 years.

Yet emulating the Dutch experiment presents its own

For one thing, Canada would find that decriminalizing cannabis isn't
popular with the neighbours.

Among other members of the borderless European Community, particularly
France and Britain (whose drug-use rates are Europe's highest), Dutch
drug policy still stirs considerable unease. Legions of foreign
"narco-tourists" stream in annually to the Netherlands, where drugs of
all kinds are widely available. Holland is also a significant exporter
of hydroponic marijuana and synthetic drugs.

Because of pressure from abroad, the Dutch have tightened narcotics
regulations in the past couple of years. For example, the flood of
Dutch-made ecstasy pills at home and abroad led in 1997 to the
creation of the Synthetic Drug Unit, which targets manufacturers and

It is one thing to turn a blind eye, in the Dutch tradition of
gedoogbeleid, meaning institutional discretion. But actually
legalizing cannabis -- which would show blatant disregard of
international statutes that the Netherlands has signed -- would be
radically different.

"We'd have a lot of problems," said Klars Wiltink, an Amsterdam police
spokesman. "Right now, legalization is not possible."

In the same way, were Canada to decriminalize cannabis, the first
sound it would probably hear would be an angry yell of protest from
Washington, already irate over Canada's annual, multitonne export of
high-grade marijuana.

There is also the thorny question of supplying the users. Where should
the drugs come from?

In the Netherlands, no one gets busted for growing half a dozen
marijuana plants, but large-scale producers are another matter.

And the source of cannabis for the wide-open, 1,000-plus
marijuana-selling coffee shops and bars is murky. An outlet is
supposed to have no more than 500 grams on the premises at any given
time, and that law gets enforced.

For many foreign visitors, the widespread tolerance for cannabis and
easy availability of hard drugs can leave the impression of a society
awash in drugs.

But most of the Netherlands' 16 million citizens don't use any illicit
drugs at all. As with the ubiquitous sex shops, also a tourist
favourite, the novelty wore off long ago.

"In general, we consider our policy [decriminalization] a success,
though that doesn't mean there are no problems," said Roel
Verssemauers, deputy manager of prevention at the respected,
government-funded Jellinek drug agency, which conducts research,
treatment and education campaigns.

Heroin consumption among young people, for instance, is barely on the
radar, and the average age of Dutch junkies, widely regarded by young
people as losers, is now close to 40.

However, there is one drug, ecstasy, that has blurred the traditional
distinction between hard and soft drugs.

Although it is non-addictive, ecstasy is classified as a hard drug in
the Netherlands, along with heroin and cocaine. For a variety of
reasons, principally concern about declining quality, domestic use of
ecstasy has dropped by perhaps half since its 1996 peak.

The organic stimulants sold by the relatively recent, colourful "smart
shops" is another grey area. Most are deemed legal because the
products are "natural," but a current case involving the Conscious
Dreams shop is being closely watched.

The store was busted for selling psylocybin mushrooms, a popular
hallucinogen, because the product was dried. The drying process
constituted a form of manufacture, police concluded.

"It's still quite unclear for the authorities what to do with the
smart shops," Mr. Verssemauers said.

Data on drug usage among the Dutch population are also mixed.

Statistics from a study last year by the European Union's
drug-monitoring centre in Lisbon show that a little more than 5 per
cent of the teenaged and adult Dutch population had used cannabis in
the previous year, slightly higher than the continent-wide average of
about 4 per cent.

Across Canada, the figure in the mid-1990s was 7.4 per cent, according
to Statistics Canada, while in the United States, 9 per cent used
cannabis in 1997.

Among Dutch teenagers, on the other hand, drug use is generally a bit
higher than in most European countries. Only their Irish and British
peers consume more.

But that doesn't mean most Dutch high-school students arrive in class

In Amsterdam, where drug use tends to be higher than in the rest of
the country, a recent survey of 17-year-olds found that 19 per cent
admitted to smoking pot in the previous month, Mr. Verssemauers said.

But only 4 per cent of the sample said they smoked every day, while
just 3 per cent had used ecstasy in the previous month -- the same
figure as for cocaine -- and heroin use was far below that level.

Alcohol use, by contrast, is a growing problem. A 1984 survey of
17-year-olds by the Jellinek agency found that about 10 per cent had
consumed at least eight drinks the last time they imbibed. In the
newest such poll, the figure was 32 per cent.

A first-rate health-care system, along with a wealth of
government-provided drug information, helps reduce drug risks. As
well, anecdotal evidence suggests that Dutch drug users are
considerably more sophisticated and mindful of the dangers of drug use
than are their foreign peers.

For all the concern about ecstasy, for instance, there have only been
about 15 ecstasy-related deaths in Amsterdam in the past 12 years,
despite the consumption of millions of the little tablets. In Ontario,
there have been at least 13 such deaths in the past two years.

Drug use in the Dutch capital reached its zenith in the early 1970s,
when a tide of foreign hippies invaded, clogging the streets and
reducing the city's now-pristine Vondelpark to something resembling a
garbage heap.

Today, crack dealers still hover furtively around the central railway
station. But for the most part, Amsterdam has evolved into a vibrant,
clean, safe city where jobs and money are abundant.

"I think the attitude toward drug usage here has gotten quite a lot
healthier," said rave-party disc jockey O. L., a 24-year-old
Californian who has been living and taking drugs in Amsterdam for many

"Your [1960s] generation was 'turn on, tune in, drop out.' Our
generation is 'turn on, tune in, go to work on Monday.' "

With that said, the de facto decriminalization of soft drugs poses
other complications, chief of which is the question: Who controls the
supply of drugs?

In the Netherlands, as well as other countries, the answer is clear:
Organized crime.

In the hard-drugs world, including that of ecstasy production, the
link with the mob -- notably gangsters from Eastern Europe -- has long
been evident, and over the years there have been plenty of killings
and other violence.

But because of the huge sums of money involved, cannabis is also part
of that organized-crime pattern, police and other experts say.

Beneath the orderly, well-kept veneer of the coffee shops, which pay
taxes and are regularly visited by police looking for under-18
patrons, the cannabis industry has a discernibly tough edge. Spend
time in any of the outlets lining Amsterdam's streets and canals, and
it's just a matter of time before a hard-faced visitor stops by to
check up on business.

"Hard drugs, soft drugs, it's basically the same kind of people
running things," said a member of the Flying Brigade, the city police
force's mobile unit.

On this particular evening, the brigade is parked in Leidseplein, a
busy central square, where a band of cheerful pot smokers sits outside
the nearby Bulldog coffee shop puffing on fat spliffs.

No, the policeman said, he did not really approve. Tolerating soft
drugs sends out entirely the wrong message to young people.

"But what is the alternative? If you shut down the coffee shops, you
just drive everything underground and people keep on taking drugs
anyway. Just like in your country."

Timothy Appleby reports on crime for The Globe and Mail.
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