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AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- Jaro Renout is looking for drugs.

A bouncer at the dance club Milky Way, Renout frisks patrons nightly
and pulls plenty of drugs from their pockets, including Ecstasy, the
feel-good pill that's the rage in Europe and the USA. Then he gets out
the club's enforcement device: a jar of water. Dumping pills into
water ruins them, and it serves other purposes: It keeps away dealers
who might annoy customers, and it shows that the bouncers don't
confiscate drugs for themselves.

It also, of course, makes it pointless to call police. Drugs are
illegal here, but they have been tolerated. While the United States
considers Ecstasy a scourge, it's just the latest fad here. While
America rushes to toughen penalties and U.S. police sweep through rave
clubs, the Dutch government sees use as a health issue. America offers
jail, while Amsterdam offers Ecstasy users chemical tests to make sure
their pills are free of dangerous impurities.

The next few years will tell whether the Dutch can maintain that
permissive approach. The Ministry of Justice is struggling to control
illegal manufacturing and smuggling operations that have made the
Netherlands the world's leading Ecstasy supplier.

In 1999, the last full year for which data are available, Dutch
authorities carried out 150 major operations, closed 36 Ecstasy labs
and seized 3.6 million pills. Figures for 2000 and 2001 are expected
to climb, and seizures represent only a fraction of the Ecstasy trade.
"The unremitting efforts to tackle Ecstasy production and trafficking
will be sustained," the Ministry of Justice said in a statement
announcing a budget increase for 2001.

"The Dutch are extremely aggressive," says Dean Boyd, a spokesman on
drug interdiction for the U.S. Customs Service. Dutch authorities have
cooperated closely with the Customs Service, he says, but the huge
profits make it hard to stop the traffickers.

A pill costs only a few cents to make and often sells for $ 25 or
more. Demand is growing, especially in the USA. In the year ended
Sept. 30, U.S. Customs seized 9.3 million pills, up from 400,000 in
1997. About 80% of the Ecstasy imported to the USA comes from or
through the Netherlands.

Ecstasy is a synthetic stimulant and hallucinogen widely popular at
"raves," parties where people dance all night to techno and club
music. Also known by teens as "E," "X" and the "love drug," it causes
feelings of euphoria.

Although not considered addictive like cocaine or heroin, Ecstasy use
is a habit of many young people and can be dangerous. Side effects
include severe dehydration. Medical studies have shown that heavy use
can cause brain damage. In the Netherlands, although Ecstasy sales are
illegal, the permissive policy lessens the risk to

Former U.S. drug policy chief Barry McCaffrey, who made an official
visit to Amsterdam in 1998, called the policy an "unmitigated disaster."

Dutch "coffee shops" feature menus of marijuana products and other
herbal concoctions. "Dutch tolerance of drug use has created a climate
that drug manufacturers and traffickers have seized upon," McCaffrey
said. President Bush has not yet appointed a new drug "czar," but his
administration is expected to take a similar stance.

The Dutch are unyielding. "The policy on coffee shops will remain
unchanged," the Ministry of Justice says.

Rien Maas, police chief in Oosterhout, south of Amsterdam, says the
policy is not a panacea. Despite the availability of treatment, there
are about 70,000 hard-drug addicts in Holland, and there's still
drug-related violence, especially between rival smugglers. Even so, he
supports tolerance as the most practical approach, especially compared
with U.S. laws. "It is impossible to have enough police to eliminate
drug dealing and use," he says.

To crack down on dealers, the Netherlands is looking to regulate sales
of pill-making machines and block import of the chemical ingredients
for Ecstasy. It also is working with neighboring countries to better
track illegal drugs. Border controls have largely disappeared with the
advent of the European Union.

Although most of Europe has strict anti-drug policies similar to those
in the USA, a few nations are moving toward the Dutch approach.
Belgium and Switzerland have tentatively approved measures to
decriminalize marijuana this year. Portugal and Luxembourg are
considering similar action.

At Amsterdam's clubs, patrons say the Dutch policy works and the
impact of the crackdowns is not entirely positive. Ecstasy pills are
more frequently spiked with unwanted amphetamines and other
substitutes, they say. "When I came here for the first time, pills
were a lot better," says Anke Bertems, 25, a sociology student at the
University of Amsterdam. "Police began to interfere a lot more with
it, so the quality went down."

Officials say a wide variety of substances have been mixed into the
pills. Sometimes other stimulants are included, which can be
dangerous, especially if the use of the pills is combined with alcohol
or other drugs.

Bertems says her friends are careful about their drug use. And because
drugs are legally tolerated, she says, they don't take drugs to rebel
or show off, only to feel good. "We're not judging each other," she

Nearby, at the club Paradiso, in an old church, powerful bass speakers
rumble and dancers shake where pews once stood. Marijuana smoke scents
the air. Though many are high, this is not a "drug party." Almost
everyone is dancing.

Clubgoers who don't take drugs say they are comfortable dancing
alongside those who do. "I can see what it does to people, and I don't
want it," says Bo van Brommel, 20. However, she says outlawing drugs
is wrong. "We've got a lot of education about it, and you just make
your own choice."

She also says the country's liberal policies don't create an
underworld of drug criminals. As a result, "Amsterdam, it's quite
safe," she says. The murder rate in the Netherlands is a fourth of
that in the USA.

Tineke Edink, 22, says she has never tried drugs. She works one day a
week at a treatment facility and knows the downside. "But I have
friends who use drugs. They can handle it. They are not addicts at
all," she says. "Because it's legal here, I think more people use it
like my friends without problems. When things are illegal, for some
people, it is more exciting."

Even in the clubs, the Dutch say that tolerance is not the same as
"anything goes." The society expects people to be responsible, they
say. Renski Bronk, 22, who works at the Van Gogh Museum, disapproves
of Americans there who show up for work stoned. "They can't use it in
America, so they are using it here" to excess, she says.

Joris de Ryk, 25, another Milky Way bouncer, says he's glad he grew up
with the Dutch policy of "allowing."

"By the time I was 21, I had pretty much stopped smoking dope. I was
kind of bored with it. It was exciting when I was 16 or 17," he says.
He spent some time in Northern California, and by contrast, "they
don't seem to handle it too well."

Newshawk: DrugSense DrugSense
Pubdate: Thu, 15 Feb 2001
Source: USA Today (US)
Copyright: 2001 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Contact: editor@usatoday.com
Address: 1000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington VA 22229
Fax: (703) 247-3108
Website: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nfront.htm
Author: Steven Komarow
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