AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- It's called a "coffee shop," but the New
Millennium 2000 doesn't sell much latte or cappuccino. The big draws are
hashish and marijuana.

For $9.50, customers can get a gram of Arabica Queen, enough hashish to
pack a tiny pipe two or three times.

For $5, they can buy enough Super Skunk marijuana to roll a couple of joints.

And for $4, they can purchase a "cocktail joint," a pre-rolled blend.

To many Americans, who can go to jail for using cannabis, no trip to
Amsterdam would be complete without a visit (or two or three) to the New
Millennium or another of the city's 281 coffee shops.

But to the Dutch, the easy availability of cannabis has eliminated much of
its appeal. Among the many Dutch who have never even sampled the stuff: the
owner of the New Millennium 2000.

"I don't smoke, I'm not interested," says 27-year-old Abdel Tarzaki.

Since 1976, this little country of 15.5-million has been the world's
biggest experiment in decriminalizing marijuana and its close cousin,
hashish. The coffee shops reflect what the Dutch see as a fact of life:
Most young people experiment with illegal substances. If you let them buy
and use "soft" drugs in a regulated setting, you can keep them away from
street dealers pushing highly addictive "hard" drugs like heroin.

The approach appears to be working. According to the United Nations, 5.2
percent of Dutch 12 and older had used marijuana or hashish in the past
year -- less than half the 12.3 percent rate in the United States.

So few Dutch youth are trying heroin that the average age of new addicts in
the Netherlands has risen to 33. Cocaine use also is significantly less
than in the United States.

"The separation of hard and soft drugs has helped keep people out of the
drugs that really marginalize you from society," says Janhuib Blans of
Jellinek, a Dutch organization that runs drug prevention, counseling and
treatment programs.

Despite the statistics, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton's drug
czar, called the Netherlands' drug policy "an unmitigated disaster." The
Swedes, whose attitude toward illegal drugs is nearly as strict as that of
the United States, charge that the Dutch are raising "a lost generation."

Yet experts who have closely studied the Dutch model are convinced of its
merits. Among them is Craig Reinarman, a sociology professor at the
University of California-Santa Cruz.

"Marijuana laws all over the world are based on the premise, primarily
pushed by America, that if you let this stuff in, all hell will break loose
-- marijuana will be a gateway (to heroin), there will be 'reefer
madness,"' Reinarman says.

"But the only place this theory has been tested is in the Netherlands and
the Dutch are right about in the middle. They don't have any more drug
users, they have a much lower rate of heroin addiction. So the hell that
was supposed to have broken out just hasn't happened."

* * * The Dutch acceptance of cannabis dates to the country's Golden Age in
the 17th century, when the Dutch East India Company was the world's largest
trading firm and its ships brought back consumable treasures from around
the globe.

"These people were devoutly Protestant, straight and narrow, but they
worked hard and allowed themselves a bit of celebration," says Reinarman,
who is writing a book on Dutch tolerance. "There is a very long history
with ... substances that give pleasure to the senses, including opiates,
tobacco, beer, wine and spirts and certainly cannabis."

Paintings by the Old Masters show Dutch burghers smoking what appears to be
cannabis from long pipes. As Holland became a great seafaring nation,
farmers grew hemp, which comes from the same plant as marijuana and
hashish, to make ropes and sails.

In this century, the Netherlands has joined other countries in adopting
treaties aimed at eliminating the international drug trade. But the Dutch
began to rethink their drug polices in the 1970s when they faced a growing
heroin problem that came with the influx of young immigrants from the
former colony of Suriname. In 1976, the government passed the Opium Act,
which distinguished between hard drugs that have "unacceptable" risks
(heroin, cocaine) and soft drugs (marijuana and hashish).

Trafficking in hard drugs remained subject to vigorous prosecution and
tough punishment. But the law in effect decriminalized the personal use of
cannabis and the "coffee shops" were born. At first, the government
tolerated the shops but began to regulate them in the early '80s.

Today, coffee shops can sell up to 5 grams of cannabis per transaction as
long as they obey five rules: no minors, no alcohol sales, no hard drug
sales, no advertising and no "public nuisance."

A study, yet to be published, suggests that the 1976 act helped separate
the markets for hard and soft drugs. Interviewers asked drug users in
Amsterdam, San Franciso and Bremen, Germany, if they could get other drugs
from the same source as they obtained marijuana.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the Americans and Germans said they could
also get heroin and cocaine from their marijuana suppliers. Less than 50
percent of the Dutch said they could obtain hard drugs from their soft-drug

There have been other provocative findings.

"One of the key measures of drug use is 'lifetime prevalance' -- if people
have ever used drugs in their lifetime," says Reinarman, an author of the
study. "In Amsterdam, where you can't throw a brick without hitting a
coffee shop, the lifetime prevalance of cannabis is 26 percent. In San
Francisco, where one can be imprisoned for using cannabis, it's 66 percent."

Inconsistencies in Dutch policy make for strange rules at coffee shops. It
is permissible for the proprietor to sell cannabis out the front door, but
it is illegal for him to bring it in through the back door.

"It is a very strange thing," says the New Millennium's Tarzaki, whose
cannabis comes from Morocco. "If I have something with me in my car to take
to my shop, it is not allowed and I could be arrested."

To eliminate such a paradox, the Dutch Parliament passed a non-binding
resolution last year that would have legalized the production and supply of
Dutch-grown cannabis to coffee shops. The government rejected the idea,
saying it would violate international treaties and encourage "drug tourism."

Some Dutch experts say pressure from the United States is the real reason
their country has not taken an even bolder approach to drugs. As with other
consumer products, they say, there should be laws assuring quality
throughout the entire chain of production and distribution.

"How much weed killer you can put on cannabis plants might be more urgent
and affect more people than addiction (issues)," says Blans of the Jellinek
Center. "We can't set up laws that fine-tune what we want to do. The U.S.
is the main block for us to legislate in the direction we'd like to go in."

However, California's Reinarman thinks the Dutch approach, while "a bit
messy," has enabled the Netherlands to develop effective drug policies
without running afoul of international treaties.

"A lot of these treaties were negotiated in The Hague and the Dutch are
proud of that," he says. "Having space between law and policy gives them
room to maneuver despite the best efforts of the United States to make them
a pariah nation."

Critics of U.S. drug policy know it would be politically impossible in
America to adopt the more liberal Dutch approach toward drug use. And, they
acknowledge, there's no guarantee that a drug policy developed in a small,
homogenous country like the Netherlands, with an excellent national health
care system and low rates of poverty and homelessness, would necessarily
work well in a big, diverse country like the United States.

"If you just all of a sudden magically passed the Dutch drug model to the
U.S., it might not look like it looks (in Holland) because we have all
kinds of other problems the Dutch don't have or that they handle better,"
Reinarman says.

"Each country has to work out its own policy. But there are trends in the
developed world that are clearly moving more in the Dutch direction."

* * * Despite tolerating the personal use of cannabis, Dutch authorities
have intensified controls over the coffee shops, closing more than 350 in
the past five years because of nuisance complaints and code violations.
Most of the 845 or so remaining shops are in bigger cities; almost 75
percent of Dutch municipalities do not allow them.

In Amsterdam, the shops remain popular with tourists, even though visitors
account for most of the reported medical problems. Americans tend to wolf
down "space cakes" -- made with marijuana -- and smoke far more cannabis
than they're used to, resulting in occasional panic attacks.

"Sometimes smoking hashish can make you feel awful," warns a free pamphlet
distributed in tourist areas. "If that happens, find a nice, quiet place to
sit down and relax. Have something sweet to eat or drink. In an hour, the
worst of it will be over."

In more experienced users, cannabis generally produces nothing more than a
mild "high" and a relaxed feeling. That's especially welcome when it comes
to visiting British soccer fans, whose own country has Europe's highest
rate of marijuana use.

"In other places they get drunk and cause all kinds of problems," says
Tarzaki. "Here they come to the coffee shops, smoke a joint and just sit in
the corner and smile."

Newshawk: Jay Bergstrom
Pubdate: Mon, 30 Jul 2001
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 2001 St. Petersburg Times
Author: Susan Taylor Martin, Times Senior Correspondent
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