Dutch Drug Crisis: Public opinion swings to right

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THE Netherlands' reputation as a bastion of liberalism, where pot-smoking is accepted as normal and hard drug addiction is considered a sickness rather than a crime, is changing rapidly in the face of a sharp swing to the right in public opinion.

Dutch tolerance towards illegal drug use is disappearing as the country faces a crime wave. It is mild by British standards, but is widely blamed on junkies stealing to feed their addiction. The swing to the far right, underscored in last week's municipal elections, is also focusing hostility on the Netherlands' large immigrant population, widely blamed for running the drug trade.

Now, when a Dutch hard-drug user commits a burglary to pay for heroin or cocaine, the reaction is no longer one of concerned hand-wringing by social workers. Instead, judges can order the criminal junkie to complete a three-month drug-treatment programme or face an automatic jail sentence.

The immigrant community, mainly from Turkey and Surinam, is assumed to be behind the increasing heroin and cocaine trade and is blamed for being a drag on the country's generous social welfare system at a time of ever-rising unemployment. And like politicians elsewhere in the European Union, Dutch MPs are learning that talking tough on drug-related crime and immigrants can be a certain vote winner.

The danger, according to Dirk Korf, a drugs researcher at Amsterdam University, is that the country's carefully calibrated approach to illegal drugs, which is aimed at separating hard and soft drugs and preventing those who experiment with cannabis from graduating to cocaine and heroin, will be overridden.

The policy has contained the numbers of hard-drug users - they are fewer in number and getting older - and has largely prevented the spread of Aids among intraveneous drug users. 'I am all in favour of being tough on persistent junkie criminals,' Mr Korf said, 'but there is an awful lot of nonsense talked about the spread of organised crime and its links to the drugs trade and the role of immigrants in distributing hard drugs from the Netherlands.'

A big factor in changing Dutch attitudes is pressure from the country's European Union partners - France and Germany in particular - where soft drugs such as cannabis are seen as stepping stones to hard-drug addiction.

In a borderless EU these countries want to prevent the Netherlands from becoming a supermarket for drug buyers. France takes a particularly hard line and has delayed implementation of the Schengen Convention, removing border controls among nine of the 12, partly because of the drug situation in the Netherlands.

Most European countries criminalise drug use, but four countries - Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy - continue to flout the international conventions by treating the sale of soft drugs as a misdemeanour.