Amsterdam: where liberalism hasn't run out of puff

Whenever drug legalisation is debated, people look to the Dutch experience. For 30 years the Netherlands has displayed a tolerance unequalled in Europe and has been cited by pro-legalisation camps as an innovative success in the fight against addiction.

Rehabilitation is at the centre of its drugs policy. Cannabis use, although officially illegal, is not pursued as a criminal offence and people can go to state-monitored "coffee shops" to buy dope. Law enforcement agencies and the courts are reserved for drug dealers and traffickers.

Recently, those opposed to easing drug restrictions in the UK have been citing the Dutch case as a failure, pointing to a growth in drug-related crime and violence. They claim that the Dutch now realise the error of their ways and are about to change their policy. In fact, the proposed changes are very limited and the central philosophy remains the same. The government is proposing to cut the amount of cannabis allowed for personal use from 30g to 5g and intends to phase out some of the bars, discos and bistros where people can buy and consume dope.

Paul Vasseur is drug co-ordinator for Amsterdam, which has about 450 such "coffee shops", 180 in the inner city alone. He says the plans have nothing to do with a view that decriminalisation has failed as a drugs policy or contributed to a more serious drug problem. "Far from it," he says. "The number of addicts has stabilised over the past two years."

The Dutch maintain they have one of the lowest proportions of drugs addicts per population - 1.6 per 100,000 people, compared with 2.6 in the UK and 2.5 in France. And citing World Health Organisation figures, Mr Vasseur claims the Netherlands has one of the lowest drug-related HIV rates in the world, at 360 people.

"There is no basic change in our philosophy. We are just being more realistic," he says. Five grams, enough for several joints, is sufficient for personal use, whereas 30g was a quantity which dealers, particularly those from Britain, France, Belgium and Germany, are buying and selling on. "Dealing is something we do not like and are not prepared to tolerate," he says. Neither are the Dutch authorities any longer prepared to tolerate the increase in petty crime and nuisance that local residents and shopkeepers associate with some coffee shops. But there is no proposal to close them altogether.

"Yes, we are into a more repressive period for anybody who violates rules," says Mr Vasseur. "That is because the so-called permissive society is behind us. Society has changed and we have to change with it. But our basic policy remains the same."