Dutch run out of patience with lax drug laws

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TOLERANCE of drugs is legendary in the Netherlands, where the "coffee shops" are full of marijuana fumes and free methadone and syringes are distributed to addicts. But now, at last, the Dutch may have had enough.

Under pressure from the public and neighbouring countries, Dutch MPs agreed last week to support plans to crack down on rising drug-related crime and the sale of cannabis, reflecting a harsh new mood in a country once proud of its liberal traditions. The Dutch government, which had planned to liberalise drugs policy still further, is promising several tough measures.

These include the revival of a 19th-century law to lock up addicts who repeatedly commit petty crimes or cause public nuisance. Designed originally to clear the streets of "vagrants, pimps and beggars", it will give courts the power to hold addicts for up to two years at rehabilitation centres where they will undergo compulsory treatment. Five hundred cells have been set aside for those convicted of offences linked to drugs, which form 10 per cent of total crime.

A recent poll showed that 75 per cent of the Dutch consider existing drugs policy too lax - a view shared by other west European countries, notably France. French and Dutch officials are to meet shortly after Easter to discuss their differences, which culminated in France's decision last month to lift border controls with Spain and Germany under the Schengen accord, but not with Luxembourg and Belgium, because it believes they are used as a drug route from the Netherlands.

Limiting the diplomatic damage is clearly one of the main aims of the new Dutch policy. Police no longer turn a blind eye to young "drug tourists" from Britain, France and Germany, lured by easy access to cheap cannabis. Border controls have been tightened and deportations increased.

The government has cut the amount of cannabis that can be bought in "coffee shops" to 5 grams, a sixth of the previous limit. But the police are sceptical: there is nothing to stop buyers going on a "coffee shop crawl" to accumulate as much as they want, particularly since there will be no change in the current practice of not prosecuting individuals for possession of less than 30g of soft drugs.

Coffee shop owners say they have seen it all before. "All we have to do is keep our heads down for a while," said one. "I might go away for a couple of weeks while the fuss blows over." But the government says it intends to halve the number of soft drug outlets to around 1,000.

A "more forceful" policy ispromised against large-scale growers of nederwiet, the potent Dutch "grass". But a call for state control of cannabis suppliers, aimed at stopping the rapid infiltration of the lucrative soft drugs trade by organised crime, was rejected.

Addicts will still be treated as victims rather than criminals: a small- scale experiment supplying free heroin to committed hard drugs addicts in Rotterdam will be launched shortly. The Netherlands says it has fewer addicts - 1.6 per thousand of the population - than France (2.5) or Britain (2.6).

How tolerant the Dutch still really are was illustrated by television coverage of the parliamentary debate, which showed onlookers in the public gallery and the corridors of the legislature calmly rolling and puffing their joints without molestation.