Coffee-shop drugs culture falls apart

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The Independent Online
For the past twenty years people have been able to eat, drink or smoke cannabis in `coffee shops' in the Netherlands. But, as Jason Bennetto discovered, a system designed to keep hard and soft drug users apart is under threat from an ecstasy epidemic. The solution may be to decriminalise possession of ecstasy.

The selection on offer was impressive. Dozens of tiny plastic bags containing such mind-blowing substances as Jamaica Gold, Zero Zero and Purple Haze were hung in neat rows like a supermarket spice rack. Below in plastic strawberry containers, for your convenience, were ready-rolled joints of cannabis and powerful "skunk weed". The label on the wooden drugs cabinet boasted "official junk dealer".

The audience was equally impressive. Among the customers bathed in the sweet smell of dope was a senior police officer, a government prosecutor, and council official wearing dark suits and fixed smiles.

The visit to Gerard Smit's friendly coffee shop, Creamers in The Hague, which might more accurately be called a drugs bar, was the Dutch government's attempt at clarifying their much-maligned drugs policy.

By British standards the Dutch not only think the unthinkable, they actually carry it out. More unusually they are honest enough to admit their failures and compromises.

For many years their system of licensed "coffee bars" where punters can buy and use very small amounts of cannabis without fear of police harassment has keep soft drug consumers away from dealers of hard narcotics. But the rise in popularity of ecstasy with tens of thousands of Dutch youths, using the dance drug and new "eco-substances" such as magic mushrooms has undermined that policy and called into question the entire coffee shop system.

In a further twist a recent police clampdown against ecstasy producers has resulted in traffickers mixing the drug with other substances, including amphetamines (Speed) which unlike ecstasy is addictive.

The Dutch have long prided themselves on their progressive approach to drugs. They argue that although they have a more liberal attitude to illegal substances the rate of cannabis use in the Netherlands is low compared to other European countries, particularly Britain. They also have a relatively low level of HIV sufferers, drug deaths, and heroin addicts who are becoming increasingly old - the average age is now 36 - because there are so few new young recruits.

But the popularity of Ecstasy among the country's 15 million population is blurring the differences between hard and soft drug users. Up to 500,000 people in the Netherlands are estimated to have taken Ecstasy, although only six are believed to have died from the side effects.

The Netherlands is the centre for ecstasy production in Europe with Britain being one of its major clients. New laws have been introduced which enable the authorities to convict drug manufacturers caught with just the ingredients rather than the finished product. But the government admits it is struggling to prevent young people using the drug and therefore risking contact with other substances such as cocaine, speed and heroin. New "eco drug" shops have also started to spring up selling natural highs such as mushrooms and vitamins.

Bob Keizer, head of the Department of Addiction Care at the Dutch Ministry of Health yesterday questioned whether the government could continue to maintain "the old-fashioned approach of separating the two (soft and hard drug) markets." He added: "We realise we can't go on forever with this policy if we do not do anything about ecstasy."

Jaap Fransman, director of the Division of Youth and Mental Health Care in Amsterdam is equally pessimistic, describing the availability of ecstasy as an "epidemic". Health officials are concerned at the variety of substances being cut into ecstasy tablets to bulk them out.

In an attempt to deal with this problem the Dutch have come up with a typically schizophrenic policy. While classifying ecstasy as a Class A hard drug, they have allowed local authorities to licence large house parties in which ecstasy is taken. While there is someone to frisk people going into the party - this is supposed to weed out any dealers with large numbers of tablets - it is easy to smuggle in drugs.

Anyone caught will have their tablets confiscated. Prosecution usually only takes place where significant amounts are found. Once inside, experts are on hand to provide instant testing of the Ecstasy and advice on what the tablet contains in an attempt to spot dangerous concoctions. Once diagnosed the tablet is returned to its owner.

The Dutch authorities are now having to rethink their policy on ecstasy and are considering whether, like cannabis, it should be decriminalised in small quantities.

Meanwhile back at the Creamer coffee shop the owner, Mr Smit, believes the rest of the world is missing out on the Dutch experience. He explains: "Bill Clinton was about 500 metres from here the other day when he visited the Royal Palace. People were in here smoking joints having a good time." Unlike the American President, they did inhale.