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Europe Becomes Less Drug-friendly

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420 Staff
With its marijuana coffee shops, the Netherlands has a reputation for being the most drug-friendly country in Europe: the epitome of the continent's permissive cultural attitude to illegal drug use. The Dutch have long favored "harm reduction" rather than law enforcement in their drug-related public policies, and many coffee shops have been able to flout what rules there are regarding the sale of cannabis.

In March 2006, though, the Dutch minister for justice, Piet Hein Donner, proposed an amendment that would make it easier to shut down shops selling drugs illegally--it is still under debate. Later that spring, he was not only able to defeat a parliamentary proposal to allow regulated, large-scale production of marijuana, but the legislature also raised the maximum sentence for large-scale marijuana cultivation. Last Friday, the Dutch government banned the sale and cultivation of magic mushrooms after a series of high-profile incidents. A justice ministry spokesman promised that the law would be enforced and coffee shops caught selling them closed down. The city of Rotterdam has also passed a law that will shut down nearly half of its "grow" shops.

By the late 1990s, the country had become the world's largest producer of Ecstasy, a problem they have successfully tackled. In 2002 the government launched a five-year campaign against the drug. Production has fallen significantly and rates of use of Ecstasy ( as well as marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines ) declined among Dutch teens from 1999 to 2003. The Netherlands, long the leader in legalization of soft drugs, is part of a wide shift in European attitudes and laws on drug use.

Take Sweden. The 2007 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report notes that drug use in Sweden is a third the European average with only 12 percent of the adult population having ever used drugs. Yet even here the number of serious drug users fell 7 percent from last year and the percentage of high school students who have tried drugs--already low--dipped slightly.

Or Switzerland. It has some of the highest rates of cannabis use in Europe: In a population of 7.5 million, 500,000 Swiss are thought to use marijuana at least occasionally. Approximately 250,000 use it regularly, a 100 percent increase from a decade ago. In 2004, the Swiss parliament considered a bill that would have decriminalized marijuana use for adults ( and set up a permanent heroin maintenance program for addicts ). But spooked by a steep increase in users and a spike in drug-related crime ( 50,000 cases nationally, an all-time high ), parliament rejected the measure.

Following the failure of the bill, a lobbying group collected the 100,000 signatures needed to bring legalization directly before voters as a ballot initiative. The vote won't happen until 2009 or 2010, but it won't be the first time voters will have been asked to legalize pot: A similar initiative was rejected--with 74 percent against--in 1998.

The biggest turnaround may have occurred in the United Kingdom, which ten years ago looked to be on its way to adopting the Dutch model. In 1997, the London Sunday Independent launched a loud campaign to legalize marijuana. The paper opined frequently about the issue and even sponsored a march in support of legalization, which attracted 16,000 activists. In 2001, the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs declared that "the mental health effects of cannabis are real and significant." Three years later, marijuana was downgraded from a Class B to a Class C drug, essentially making possession of the substance permissible for adults.

Then researchers noticed that the drug was having a number of dangerous effects. In 1997, a survey showed 1,660 cannabis users entering treatment programs for addiction. Ten years later, that number had shot up to 22,000. By 2007, 1.5 million Britons were using cannabis, and this number was accompanied by a sizable increase in related mental and behavioral disorders.

Robin Murray, of London's Institute of Psychiatry, explained to the Independent that a quarter of the population was particularly at risk for psychosis caused by the elevated levels of dopamine that come from cannabis use. Murray estimated that at least 25,000 Britons were suffering from marijuana-induced schizophrenia. As Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime, summarizes it: "The harmful characteristics of cannabis are no longer that different from those of other plant-based drugs such as cocaine and heroin."

In Britain, it has also become apparent that the semi-legalization for adults led to a spike in usage for minors. One precinct commander in East London said that the reclassification of the drug caused "extensive and expansive" increases in use by teenagers ( for whom possession was still illegal ). As Neil McKeganey of Glasgow University's Centre for Drug Misuse Research explained, "Society has seriously underestimated how dangerous cannabis really is." A July 2007 study in the Lancet reported that the use of cannabis leads to an increase in psychotic outcomes, including what researchers refer to as a "dose-response" effect--meaning that the more pot you smoke, the more at risk you are.

The Independent actually rescinded its decade-long call for legalization, running a package of articles pointing to the dangers of marijuana and an editorial regretting its earlier stance. Politicians who had previously supported the downgrading of marijuana, including Conservative party leader David Cameron, also reversed their positions. When he took office, Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised that he would explore reclassifying the drug.

In other countries, the backlash against drugs has been born out of grim necessity. Since the end of the Cold War, drug use in Russia has boomed. In 2006, Russia's Federal Drug Control Service reported that over 100,000 citizens had died of drug addiction in recent years, compared with 30,000 in homicides and 35,000 in highway deaths. Nearly 5 percent of all crimes in Russia are now drug-related. Instead of pushing for legalization, Russia is trying to crack down on the drug trade, creating stiffer sentencing guidelines and making it easier to prosecute drug possession.

Still, some Europeans cling to the old line. Rosie Boycott, who as editor of the Independent initiated the paper's legalization campaign, remains unpersuaded by the new data and research. The demonstrated dangers "do not change my mind about legalization," she recently wrote. "Indeed, I now think full legalization to be more important, so that there can be sensible education about the possible dangers."

Some people will hold out until the bitter roach.

Source: Weekly Standard, The (US)
Copyright: 2007 The Weekly Standard
Contact: editor@weeklystandard.com
Website: The Weekly Standard
 
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