Thursday, December 22, 2005

Holland's Social Experiment: following the Dutch drug debate.

Recently I was fortunate enough to visit The Netherlands. My two weeks there was during second semester at University, and whilst there I needed to find and write about a topic for a feature article for a journalism subject I was doing. This is my article.

Like an indulgent, eccentric uncle, Amsterdam is a European city, where people who want to legally smoke cannabis can do so openly in one of Holland’s coffeeshops, much to the concern of the city’s surrounding neighbours. These neighbouring countries take a harder stance against drugs that is at odds with Holland’s social experiment, where the Dutch believe their lax attitude is more compassionate and a better way.
One of the first places many of Holland’s tourists visit is Amsterdam’s coffeeshops. Located along the city’s canals and narrow streets, they display a green and white sticker on their windows, indicating that inside you will find a hash or weed menu. However, you don’t really need to see these stickers to know that you can get high within Amsterdam’s coffeeshops, as the sweet, pungent aroma emitted from them is clue enough. Glancing through one of the hash menus, I found offerings such as “Hawaiian Haze”, “Juicy Fruit”, and “Purple Power”. There are pre-rolled joints, weed from Morocco, indoor plants, outdoor plants and marijuana dubbed either local or foreign.
According to a display at the Amsterdam History Museum (Historisch Museum), the Netherlands have decriminalised soft drugs since 1976. This means that in Holland a blind eye is turned to the sale and use of up to five grams of marijuana.
The display also includes a video, where an American accented panel of experts debate the merits of Holland’s drug policy, the amended Opium Act of 1976.
Pietr, who works at the History Museum thinks that the Dutch government is becoming increasingly conservative. “All the time medical reports are coming, saying that the use of cannabis is not good. Personally I do not like the smell. I hate the smell of smoking. It is everywhere. I do not like it”.
The smoky marijuana smell is indeed everywhere. This is particularly noticeable when zigzagging through pedestrians and the throng visiting coffeeshops, trying to locate the Hash Marijuana Hemp Museum, finally finding a doorway flanked by Marijuana plants and that distinctive odour. The man accepting Euros for entry into the museum was extremely cagey in answering any questions. Standing beside him was a belligerent American woman, puffing a joint, the marijuana smell emitted from the museum clearly coming from her. Declining even first name basis to be used, the man behind the counter kept trying to usher me towards the disorganised displays in an effort to answer my questions. The man at one point became irritated at my use of the word “legalised”. With a shake of his head and a deep frown, he emphasised that marijuana use is “tolerated” not legalised. From then on, in all my conversations regarding soft drug use, I made sure I used the word, tolerated instead. He told me that households are allowed five plants, and there is continual pressure from the United Nations to stop it. “We do not drink alcohol. We smoke”. With a shrug he continued, “Smoking can be bad for you. You can get addicted. It’s never written down when somebody dies using it”. Then, giving me his one and only smile, “if politicians were to smoke it, there would be less problems”.
Most of the Hemp Museum’s displays were propagandist. Lots of yellow and brown cutout newspaper articles taped along the walls, citing headlines of human rights and the drug war. There was a display about Pot Pride Marches that also included a poster of a marching chant: “We’re here, we’re high. Get used to it”.
A few doors down, at the Tiani Hemp shop, I spoke to Jorge, who was much more forthcoming than the man at the Hemp Museum. Jorge has owned his hemp shop for thirty years or more, selling all the hemp products associated with the drug, but not the drug itself. “The hemp is used for a lot”, he told me, “plastic, material, shirts, soap, rope, everything”. He nods in satisfaction. “The tobacco and plastic companies stopped production of hemp because of plastic competition”.
Jorge also thought that becoming addicted was not true. “I have smoked for thirty years. If you want to believe them…. I believe myself. Smoking has been happening for thousands of years. There’s Indian culture, Arabic, Latino, Indigenous. I think of it as a cure. People who have asthma; it opens their lungs”. Jorge is often asked for the drug itself, many tourists coming to the shop thinking they can get it here. He directs them to the numerous coffeeshops surrounding his establishment.
According to the Dutch Justice Ministry, coffeeshops numbered 1’179 in 1997, and this has dropped to 754 in 2003. Jorge is concerned about this. “Since the sixties people are making a living from this. Making money. They grow it in their own homes. Some people grow in special places, but the police catch them, so they have to grow in their homes. It’s a family affair”. Jorge explains to me that the government will not renew or issue new licences. Consequently there is no new coffeeshops opening. However, more hemp shops, like Jorge’s, are started. “If the owner dies they won’t renew. This is how they stop it. Coffeeshops are fighting this by becoming an association or cooperative”. Then he adds, “Politicians like to keep quiet because it brings tourists to Holland. Hotels are full. Everybody that is here is happy. Other countries have a higher percentage of violence. In England they drink alcohol, they become aggressive, they fight. Here they smoke; they want to make love. Other countries drug addicted people die on the street. Here people have somewhere to go”.
There is certainly an argument here. The Dutch have always reasoned that the coffeeshops allow their authorities to keep a close eye on cannabis use. Their policy also includes low threshold treatment. This means that those with a drug problem are encouraged to seek help, and Holland’s drug programs are designed so minimal paperwork is involved and minimal demands are made. The Centre for Drug Research, University of Amsterdam (CEDRO) contends that cannabis use is substantially lower than often assumed. An article from the Journal of Health and Social Policy, debates the Dutch drug policy and asks if it can be used as a model for America. The Netherlands and the USA being two countries at distinct opposite sides when it comes to drug use. The Netherlands support ‘harm reduction’ whilst America prefers ‘supply reduction’. The latter policy promotes reducing drugs, and enforces strict sanctions on those who do not. To the consternation of many of Holland’s critics, drug use has had a negligibly small increase since 1976. In other parts of Europe and also America, there has been much increase, despite prohibition.
Jorge also enthusiastically tells me about the Cannabis Cup. The Cannabis Cup has been awarded for the last sixteen years to someone or a company providing excellence in marijuana samples. When the Cannabis Cup event is taking place, there are many tours frequenting the coffeeshops. An event some tourists may not want to miss.
Most Dutch people seem to advocate Holland’s ‘social experiment’. Further afield, in the small town of Emmen, about three hours journey from Amsterdam, I meet the Boer family. Invited for a traditional meal, I enter their awe-inspiring home – a completely renovated Dutch farmhouse, hundreds of years old, but brought into the twenty-first century. The Boer family have converted the farmhouse into liveable conditions, but it still has its imposing thatched roof, and inside, the black misshapen beams with their patina of age. Even here, miles away from Amsterdam’s coffeeshops, this topic created much debate from nine people seated around the dinner table.
Marius Boer, the eldest son in his twenties says, “it’s a good thing, and it keeps away criminal things. When it is allowed it is controllable. To go under, it will not be. Trading is done at a reasonable level, the legal price goes down. What’s the difference between alcohol and hemp? It’s a soft drug”.
Marius’ parents, Peter and Karen Boer agree, Karen saying, “It must be free and allowed. Whatever you want. Also the hard drugs. Problem is solved, the price drops to nothing”.
Peter talks about the production of marijuana. “A lot of energy is put into the growing. A lot of countries are looking at how Holland controls its drugs. You can buy equipment for three or four thousand Euros, and make it back in a year growing”.
“Less than a year”, Marius interjects. Everyone around the table nods.
Peter continues. “A room, lamps, ventilation. Power companies can see power being used in the meters, they can come and close you down”. The Boer family tell of one of their neighbours close by. His thatched roof had no snow on it! His home had big gates and also big dogs! Everyone laughs at the visual of a house with no snow on its roof, due to the heat inside, growing marijuana plants.
Robert, another guest says, “We should tolerate it. But I’ve never tried it”. I turn to him surprised. Robert who has lived in Holland all his life had never tried marijuana? Is this unusual, I ask? He shrugs in answer. Peter answers for him, “When it’s not seen under the table you can control it. That’s the tactics here. Holland is united thinking the same thing. When people deal in the street it is frowned upon. Why sell drugs on the street if you can get it in the shops?” He looks at Robert, “because it’s not experimental anymore”.
I ask Karen and Natasha, another guest, how they feel about children and marijuana. Karen responds first, “I hate it”. Henk, Natasha’s husband tells me, “I hope not, that they will use drugs”. Natasha says, “I am afraid of it, that they will use drugs”. At this point I see natural parental concern. Even though Holland’s society is tolerant about drugs, there is still an instinctive worry about their children.
Jacqueline, Marius’ girlfriend gives her opinion here. “I think it has to do with your social life and your friends. When I was in school I wasn’t in a group that experimented with drugs. The friends I had were very close, from the age of four. We were always the same group doing other things”.
Karen tells us, “At school, policemen stand there during breaks so that dealers don’t come”. Everyone frowns at the thought of drug dealers in the street.
There is a powerful argument of economics that Peter contends, “coffeeshops are closing. Nobody is interested anymore. When there is too much supply the price drops. There will be a peak for a short while. There were three or four coffeeshops in Emmen, but now two are closing because there is no interest anymore”.
Back in Amsterdam, walking the city’s streets, I see people milling about a doorway. Realising they are just watching table dancers I continue on my way, the hoots of jocularity fading as I go. Later I see a bicycle tour. A group of girls are about to embark, donned with party hats and pretty clothes, here for a hen’s weekend, the bride-to-be’s last hoorah. I pass wild bucks parties, groups of people from all cultures, roaming the streets, some clearly worse for wear, away from the usual humdrum of their working lives. I think of Jorge’s words: the tourists come; the hotels are full. Everyone is here in this all-encompassing party city, which Amsterdam is known for.

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