Amsterdam — At a quaint downtown caf'e called the Reefer, the young customers smoke cannabis without fear of police harassment or arrest. The Reefer is one of scores of ``coffee shops'' where the drug is sold and smoked openly in a city whose longstanding reputation for tolerance remains largely untarnished.
Yet even this city has intensified its crackdown on trafficking in hard drugs (such as heroin). Dutch police said yesterday they had smashed an international drug ring, arresting 28 people and recovering 10 kilograms of heroin. Reports said the suspects may be linked to a record 220 kg heroin haul made by police in June in Rotterdam. Governments, cities, and towns from Norway to Greece acknowledge the growing menace of drug abuse to Western Europe.
Interior ministers from the 12 European Community countries met in London yesterday to take their first collective stab at devising a coordinated pan-European response to the problem. Most experts say the challenge facing them has never been more serious.
Over the past decade, heroin use in Western Europe has reached ``epidemic'' proportions, according to a report published this month by the European Parliament. More than 1.5 million EC citizens regularly use the drug, and heroin addiction has reportedly increased tenfold in the last five years. Street crime committed by addicts to support their habits is mounting daily.
And Western Europe finds itself facing a dramatically new drug explosion with the arrival of cocaine.
``One would expect Europe to be girding up its loins to tackle this growing international problem together,'' says Sir Jack Stewart-Clark, the author of the Parliament report. ``Yet there is complete lack of coordination, and no European strategic plan.''
To fill the void, the British government has drafted a seven-point ``action plan'' aimed at winning the war on drugs in Europe. The plan calls for tightening the European border controls against drug trafficking, enacting legislation to punish traffickers as severely as possible, linking bilateral and EC aid to efforts by recipient countries to combat drug misuse, and other measures.
But reaching agreement on a common European approach to the problem could prove extremely difficult, experts fear. Some politicians, for example, have already argued for a more lenient attitude toward drug use than that being advocated by the British government.
During a debate on the subject at the European Parliament earlier this month, the Socialist Group -- a coalition of socialist parties in Europe -- called for further studies into the possibility of decriminalizing drug use and possession. ``Trying to mount a moral crusade against certain drugs to show we mean business, simply with more repression, is not the way forward,'' said Carole Tongue, a member of the British Labour Party.
As the authorities struggle to agree on a common approach, however, individual European countries have begun taking their own initiatives to combat the growing drug problem.
In France, prison sentences for drug traffickers have been increased to 20 years (from as little as five years previously). And in Britain, a new law provides a maximum 14-year sentence for laundering drug money.
Increased police efforts, as well as closer cooperation between countries' enforcement and intelligence officials, has led to major gains in drug seizures over the past year or so. These dramatic increases also serve to underscore the enormity of the problem.
In Europe last year, seizures of cocaine soared to more than a ton -- up from less than a kilogram (2.2 pounds) in 1969 -- as drug traffickers turned their attention away from the near-saturated North American market toward the increasingly affluent younger population of Western Europe.
For the first time, cocaine seizures in Spain and West Germany were higher than those of heroin. In Britain, drug seizures and arrests last year hit record levels.
But there appears to be little support for spending the European taxpayers' francs and marks -- as the Reagan administration has done with American dollars -- on repressing production in ``source countries,'' particularly in South America.
``The attitude here seems to be `Let's leave that to the Americans,' '' says one European drug expert. Over the next five years, the US will spend $20.5 million on a crop substitution program in Bolivia, where the campesino (peasant farmers) will participate in a share-ownership and management scheme for developing coffee, citrus, and tea, as alternative crops for coca. The Europeans have begun to consider using their collective diplomatic muscle to persuade producer countries to cooperate fully in cutting opiate and coca-leaf output and in taking forceful action against drug traffickers. Ninety percent of the world's heroin comes from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Thailand, Laos, and Burma; the same percentage of all cocaine originates in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia.
``More-favorable trade agreements should be negotiated with those countries which do cooperate,'' the European Parliament report recommends.
The report also emphasizes the importance of antidrug action at the local level.
``We point particularly to the essential role of parents' organizations and to the need for them to mobilize public opinion and to encourage local authorities to take action,'' the report insists.
In an area of western England called the Wirral (population: 338,000) citizens banded together to battle the spread of drug abuse in what experts say is a textbook example of what can and should be done by local authorities.
The Liverpool borough had no specific mechanisms for discussing drug misuse and no statutory structures for dealing with drug addiction when heroin arrived on the scene in 1981 and began spreading like wildfire. But within two years an association called Parents Against Drug Abuse (PADA) had been formed which pressured the national authorities to allocate funds for opening up a clinic, an advice center, and a long-term residence unit.
A Drug Abuse Panel -- comprising senior representatives of the police department, the courts, the medical profession, the social services, and leading politicians -- drafted a 10-point plan for dealing with drug abuse. This included setting up a counseling service to help parents and children on drugs. Meetings of local teachers were held specifically to discuss the drug problem. Parents' meetings were held in 26 secondary schools and a drugs team was set up within the area's Youth Service. PADA also established a ``shop front'' parents' advice center. The police department launched a major crackdown on suppliers. And heroin was virtually eliminated from the streets.