Liberal Dutch finally get tough on drugs

International pressure has forced new curbs on the cannabis culture, writes Abi Daruvalla in Amsterdam
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The Independent Online
After 20 years of tolerance towards drugs, the Dutch have finally bowed to international pressure and abandoned liberalism in favour of a tough new stance. Instead of legalising cannabis, as expected, the government's new policy proposes a more repressive regime, with greater powers to imprison addicts and a clampdown on the "coffee shops" where cannabis is openly available.

The government proposes a reduction of the amount of cannabis tolerated for personal use from 30g (about 1oz) to 5g, the resurrection of a 19th- century law empowering courts to detain "difficult" addicts in rehabilitation centres and the provision of free heroin to a small group of 50 hardened addicts. But catching and prosecuting traffickers will continue to have priority for the police.

While soft drugs are officially illegal, the Dutch believe a total ban would drive the country's 675,000 users (out of 15 million people) into contact with hard-drug dealers. This approach led to an explosion of the so-called coffee shops and a huge influx of drug tourists from Britain, France, Belgium and Germany. The Netherlands is determined to revamp its tolerant image, which has been castigated for years by its European neighbours. But the new policy has been denounced at home as nothing more than a blatant attempt to placate foreign opinion. France cited its fear of drugs from the Netherlands as a reason for delaying implementation of the Schengen Treaty on open borders.

The government plans to halve the number of coffee shops to 600 and will step up efforts to keep foreign drug- users away from Rotterdam and Amsterdam. This is partly in response to a change in public opinion: according to a recent poll, 75 per cent of the Dutch consider existing drugs policies too lenient.

Rotterdam, which has 4,000 people addicted to hard drugs, saw demonstrations earlier this month by residents and shop owners fed up with drug-related petty crime and violence.

But the government is not going far enough for many, who want all the coffee shops shut. The new legislation proposes a 5g limit on any single cannabis transaction, but, as the Dutch Coffee Shop Union says: "Who needs to order more than one beer at a time?" The new approach to soft drugs is also seen as being impossible to enforce: the coffee shops themselves will be allowed to keep a stock of "several hundred grams".

As well as separating soft and hard drugs, the Dutch have always insisted on treating addicts as victims rather than criminals. A harder attitude now appears to be emerging. One reason is growing criminality among hard- drug users. The government says 700,000 crimes are committed by addicts every year, representing 10 per cent of all offences. In the coming year another 500 cells will be set aside for hardened drug criminals and compulsory detention will be introduced for crimes committed by addicts that may not otherwise carry an automatic jail sentence. To do this, a law against vagrants, pimps and beggars is being revived.

Amsterdam, which has 6,200 hard-drugs addicts, already has plans for a 100-cell complex for this type of offender. "A judge will be able to sentence an addict to two years in this institution and while there will be a resocialisation programme, the aim is punishment," a spokesman for the city said.

In spite of condemnation of its policy, the Netherlands reckons it has one of Europe's lowest proportions of drug addicts (1.6 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 2.5 in France and Britain 2.6). The government estimates today's figure at about 25,000, against 20,000 in 1980, and says the number of under-18 addicts has dropped.