Where the grass is greener

They award prizes for the best cannabis, leave hash smokers in bliss and collect taxes on the dope trade. So why do the Dutch take fewer drugs than the British?
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A Senior police officer, a government prosecutor and a councillor go into a bar. Inside, a stone's throw away from Parliament and the Royal Palace, two American tourists are sharing a joint over a game of pool, while a group of Dutch twentysomethings roll spliffs from an assorted menu of Zeropolm ("The best we got - smoke it and you'll know it!") and Skuffpolm ("The smell is terrible, it doesn't taste very well, but you'll be unbelievably stoned!"). The proprietor, Gerard Smit, proudly shows off his neatly stocked "junk" cupboard, drugs casually hanging off pegs like packets of nails in a hardware store. The government officials nod benignly. Mr Smit's coffeeshop, Creamers, located in The Hague, the Dutch seat of government, conforms to national and local laws controlling the sale of soft drugs in the Netherlands.

"Customers come in and ask for some hash or grass and I sit them down and talk to them about their choice," explains Mr Smit, who is enough of the model coffeeshop owner to be the subject of a guided tour sponsored by the Dutch government. "I ask them if they have smoked any before and if they say 'No' I would usually start them off on some not-very-strong stuff to see how they go. If they say 'Yes' I ask what they usually smoke and try to find something of about the same strength. I would also give them a leaflet telling them about how to use cannabis sensibly." The Dutch twentysomethings look up blankly from their gram bags of cannabis like animals in captivity observing the paying public, bewildered as to why they should be the subject of a lecture tour.

A couple of hours drive away in Amsterdam, four Glaswegian men in their early twenties pile out of a dirty coach on the edge of the capital's notorious red-light district, where tired-looking women stand in harshly- lit windows like plastic dolls in display boxes. The Glaswegians barely give them a glance. They are not here for the women, at least not tonight. They are drugs tourists, who have arrived via a special over-night bus billed as a "drugs-tour package-deal". Shouldering their rucksacks, they head straight for one of the city's chain coffeeshops - a sort of dopeheads' McDonalds - to score some of the enhanced cannabis, superskunk. No one hands them a government leaflet, although the man who serves them is helpful about the strength of different varieties. "We just want whatever fucks us up the most," says John, 24, an electrician from Glasgow's Bearsden district.

"It's magic, Amsterdam," says his friend George, 23, blowing a fragile smoke ring across the bar. "Imagine if you lived here. You could smoke with whoever you liked - with your boss after work, after lunch on Christmas Day. It would be just like having a pint. And all completely legal." He sighs and starts to relax as the superskunk begins to take effect. "Maybe I'll move over here, get a job in a bar," he says. His friends nod in agreement.

That night, the weed-worshippers gather in their hundreds at the Melkweg, or Milky Way, Amsterdam's premier nightclub, for the 10th anniversary Cannabis Cup. At the cannaboid world's answer to the Oscars, US and European dopeheads, Rastafarians - who use cannabis in religious ceremonies - and Amsterdam locals are celebrating the plant in all its many forms, from cookies to clothes, rope to dope.

To many of the faithful milling about in the Hemp Hall, the weed is not just a satisfying and low-risk way to get high, but the answer to many of the world's ecological and social problems. Passionate discussions about how hemp plants take just 100 days to grow, require no pesticides, slow down ozone depletion and can be used to make anything from shoelaces to cars, take place over an amateurish live tribute to Bob Marley.

Sweet-smelling smoke floats lazily from au-dience and stage; space-cakes, loaded with hash-ish, are shared around generously and a Hemp Clothes Show bears testimony to the versatility of "high" fashions. Dutch cannabis- growers play the role of an unofficial tourist-board. "Move over here and smoke this stuff all the time, man," exhorts a Cup-winner. "Why you want to live in a country where the weed is illegal?" Prizes in categories from Best Imported Hashish to Best Bioweed are handed out in a cheerfully haphazard ceremony - from which the judges, after a strenuous week testing 30 varieties, are noticeable by their absence.

To Drugs Tourists and cannabis campaigners, the densely populated lowlands and narrow waterways of the Netherlands represent an almost Utopian vision. Dutch culture, which cherishes tolerance and openness, and celebrates the freedom of the individual, seems to fit this image well. In Holland, government is seen to have little or no role in determining issues of morality, but to have a major role in meeting the needs of its people. Thus, this is a country where euthanasia is a legal possibility rather than a criminal offence, prostitution is decriminalised and the age of consent is equal for everyone.

The Dutch do seem to have it all figured out - at least from where George is sitting at the coffee-shop bar, smoking his weekend away. In fact, the political policies which allow him to sit there with his sticky bag of skunkweed, well-intentioned as they may be, share the slightly ridiculous confusion of the Cannabis Cup ceremonies. The essence of cannabis decriminalisation in the Netherlands is really a blind-eye policy, whereby the Dutch government says to users: "We won't notice that you are using soft drugs as long as you have less than a certain amount in your possession." So, when the aproned barman with his silver knife and Tupperware boxes full of hash and marijuana sells George his skunk, he is actually breaking the law - it is just that the authorities have declared the possession of less than 30 grams of cannabis to be a "low priority" for prosecution.

Moreover, when the barman comes to replenish his stocks, he cannot do so legally, because dealing in cannabis - outside the sale of the drug to coffeeshop customers - remains an offence. Meanwhile, the import and export of soft drugs carries a maximum penalty of four years imprisonment and a fine of up to pounds 33,000. Last year, more than 300,000 kilos of cannabis were seized in the Netherlands.

"It presents a lot of problems for us coffee-shop owners," explains Mr Smit, a very good-humoured man whose light and stylish premises are frequented mainly by locals. "Someone comes in the front door and asks for hash or grass, skunk, whatever, we can supply them. Someone comes to the back door and wants to sell us some hash or grass and we are breaking the law buying from them, they are breaking the law supplying us. If they have brought the drugs into the country, they have broken the law again."

Theoretically, police officers could follow Mr Smit to his suppliers and arrest all involved in the transaction. "Of course, they don't," he says, cheerfully. "But the point is they could." He points out that he doesn't enjoy breaking the law in order to stay in business, but the way the coffeeshop policy is designed leaves him no choice.

At Creamers, Mr Smit relies heavily on the home-grown "Nederweed" industry: cannabis plants grown in the rich Dutch soil, helped by complex hydroponic watering systems, intense sodium lighting and the latest in genetic research to ensure ever-stronger varieties enter the market. He also does business with a handful of entrepreneurs who make good use of their city windowsills and gardens. "And then there's the backpackers," he says, enthusiastically. "They come in from Nepal, Morocco or somewhere, with a little present for us. Then we get really excited because we've got good new stuff."

The Dutch decriminalised cannabis in 1976, becoming unique in drawing a distinction between the use of "drugs which pose an unacceptable risk to public health" - including heroin, cocaine, LSD and amphetamines - and hemp products such as hashish and marijuana. While penalties for the former remain severe, possession of soft drugs was effectively decriminalised. It was the Dutch government's way of facing up to what it was willing to recognise as a "hard-drugs epidemic" - the same tide of increased drug use which also faced British policy-makers in the 1970s.

Coffeeshops, where soft drugs can be bought and used, remain a key element of this policy. The government's aim was to destroy the interface between a recognised subculture of hashish and marijuana users and the criminal underworld of heroin and cocaine dealers. If young people could go to the coffeeshops, the reasoning went, they were less likely to become integrated into an environment where hard drugs were prevalent. There are currently around 350 of these cafes in Amsterdam alone.

And despite the seemingly incoherent nature of decriminalisation in Holland, the policy does actually seem to be achieving its aims. The average age of heroin addicts in the Netherlands is 37, a number which gets one higher year by year suggesting the addict population is ageing, compared to Britain's relatively youthful 25. Crack cocaine use barely registers in drugs surveys carried out in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, more British than Dutch 15- year-olds use cannabis, with UK teenagers heading international drug- use tables. British 15-year-olds are also more likely to use amphetamines than Dutch 15-year-olds and are equally likely to use ecstasy.

The policy, for all its appearance of liberalism, runs on a system of tight controls. Coffeeshops are governed by guidelines which were further tightened in 1996, following an increase in drugs tourism and a worry that there were now simply too many coffeeshops, particularly in Amsterdam and along the German and Belgian borders.

To cut down on breaches of public-order, coffeeshop owners have until the end of this month to decide whether to sell alcohol or cannabis because the sale of both will no longer be tolerated. Coffeeshops pay taxes like any other business and risk losing their licenses if hard drugs are found on the premises, or if soft drugs are sold to under-18s. Furthermore, coffeeshops cannot advertise; must display harm-reduction literature on sensible usage; can only hold a maximum of 500g of cannabis; and are allowed to sell a maximum of five grams to one person in any one day.

"No problem there though," says John to George. The Glaswegians are looking for a place to stay, but are distracted by the brightly coloured coffeeshops which line the streets. "You get your five grams and go next door and get another bag there." He draws on a water pipe, pulling the grass-smoke into the second chamber where the water cools it. "You want to know anything about the law on dope in Amsterdam, just ask us."

The Dutch Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport, a kindly and sensible woman with iron-grey hair, is disarmingly frank. "We don't know if we've got it right," she says, in precise English. "We're just trying to do our best. In terms of public-health policy, we have been successful compared to several other countries. But of course we have not achieved our goal, which is that there is no harmful drug use in this country any more."

With a doctorate in medical science, Dr Else Borst-Eilers, the 65-year- old leader of the Dutch Democrat Party, is left cold by tough talk of Drugs Tsars and Zero Tolerance. "We don't talk of a war on drugs here," she says.

The Netherlands has experienced the same explosion in the use of the dance-drug ecstasy as Britain, where around two million people take the drug every week. Dr Borst-Eilers is particularly concerned that the emergence of a hard drug so popular with young people might throw the whole coffeeshop policy into jeopardy by undermining the painstakingly developed division between soft and hard drugs.

"In the 1970s," she says, "there was either cannabis, which was relatively innocent, and then you had heroin and cocaine. Now you have in-between drugs where you don't know where to place them or how harmful they are. You have to look again at your policy." Then, sounding more like a drugs counsellor than a minister, she says there is a great deal of misunderstanding about ecstasy. She explains how most E-deaths are the result of clubbers dehydrating or drinking too much water, or caused by pills which are "cut" with other, highly toxic substances.

The Dutch - who confronted the issue of cannabis head-on during the 1970s, who have pioneered the use of "safe-houses" for long-term heroin addicts and who are due to experiment with prescribing heroin to addicts in the New Year - are not flinching from confronting ecstasy in the same uncompromising way. A health-information campaign aimed at a youth audience is planned for early next year. The Trimbos Institute, a mental-health and addiction think-tank which receives funding from the Dutch government, has established an ecstasy-testing unit where individuals can discover the precise chemical content of their drugs. A mobile version of the same unit - where experts try to recognise pills from their logos, size and weight - operates at registered "house parties" so that clubbers can find out what they are taking.

It is with a sense of deja vu that the Dutch government is already facing up to the schizo-phrenic implications of this policy. Its way of confronting the ecstasy problem is plagued by similar contradictions to those which characterise the coffeeshop regulations.

Because ecstasy is classed as a hard drug, there are severe penalties for possession and supply. And following fears that Dutch manufacturers were supplying half of Europe, the government launched a crackdown - closing down record numbers of illegitimate laboratories and making the chemicals used to make the drug illegal. But, in an echo of the back- front-door dilemma described by Mr Smit, though nightclubbers are searched on their way into parties, once inside they can make their way to the government- endorsed testing area where they hand over the pills they have just smuggled in or bought.

"Our policies may look incoherent and contradictory to you," says Inge Spruit, head of the department of addiction and substance use at the Trimbos Institute in Utrecht, "but we think they are working." She defends the ecstasy-testing programme on grounds of pragmatism. "The problem is that the pills may be very toxic," she says. "Some tablets recently contained atropine, which opticians use to dilate the pupil of the eye. It can kill you." She denies there is such a thing as a Trimbos-approved pill. "We won't tell [clubbers] to take or not to take a pill because there is no such thing as a safe drug. In the end it is their responsibility what they put in their mouth."

Spruit says that policies of repression simply do not work when it comes to the issue of drugs. Of course, it could be argued that her policies don't work either - but then you wonder what "working" really means. Does a policy work when all the legislation ties up neatly into a logical package without a single contradictory blemish, or when you achieve your aim of reducing hard-drug use? The answer may be that Dutch drugs policy is unworkable, yet it works.

The Following morning in the south-east of Amsterdam, hard by the Ajax football stadium, the heroin and methadone addicts of the Netherlands' most deprived district are still indoors, waiting for the methadone bus to pass their way, or to meet their dealers out in the concrete no-man's- land where few others dare venture alone.

In the final analysis, it is not the coffeeshops which are at the epicentre of drugs policy in the Netherlands, it is this place, the Bijimermeer district. It stands like a terrifying monument to the nightmare the Dutch government foresaw in the 1970s and tried to prevent becoming a reality.

Absent-mindedly touching the handle of his gun, AA Smit, a tough-talking police commissioner with a bouncer's build, surveys District 7 from his office window. He is thinking about Christmas and the food parcels which will flood into the station for the police officers. "Of course, we'll give some to the junks," says Smit, who is known locally as the Cowboy Cop. "The junks have to eat, too, at Christmas."

Later, he takes us on a tour of his district, showing us where the high- rise flats are being torn down - great walls of lived-in misery which are being replaced with low-rise housing. He shows us the underpass where the "junks" sleep in winter and the street corners where the addicts are now starting to gather. "This is about as bad as it gets in Holland," he says. He gestures at the place with a wide sweep of his hand as if to say: this is what our policies are about, to prevent young people growing up to inherit this. !

In 1976 the Dutch police started to turn a blind eye to cannabis users and even allowed the opening of coffeeshops where dope could be sold. There are now 350 of these cafes in Amsterdam and many are full of British tourists