Europe shifts out of drug-war mode

Belgium, Britain, France, and Portugal are among those moving toward the Dutch model of treatment, not arrest.

On a winter afternoon, Udi Aviaz strolls into Kadinsky's coffee shop just off one of Amsterdam's famed canals and asks to see the menu.

But the pages of the purple-ring binder do not list drinks. They list drugs.

Mr. Aviaz, an Israeli living in Holland, selects a joint of locally grown marijuana, orders a Coke, and sits down to listen to B.B. King while he gets high. "What I like about Holland is that the sense of paranoia is gone," he says. "I can totally enjoy smoking, and I feel quite safe."

Holland, which has allowed the possession of small amounts of marijuana, or cannabis, for the past 25 years, was once alone in its permissive stance. But more and more European countries are following its lead and turning their backs on Washington's war on drugs. The trend is bolstered by figures showing that Holland's radical approach has not led to greater drug use, and has improved addicts' health.

Drug consumption is generally far lower in Europe than in the US. Eighteen percent of Dutch people have smoked marijuana at least once, for example, compared with 33 percent of Americans.

"Where the American slogan is 'Just Say No,' the European policy is 'Just Say Know,' " explains Danilo Ballotta, an expert with the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the European Union's drug agency. "Our policies are completely different, and our messages are completely different."

The Dutch government is growing less defensive about its pioneering focus on reducing the risks that go with taking drugs: While drug possession is technically against the law, the government has chosen not to prosecute over small-scale consumption and to go after wholesale dealers and producers instead.

Other countries are changing their focus, too. The Belgian government announced last month that it will formally decriminalize personal use of marijuana, and a similar bill is before the Luxembourg parliament. The Swiss parliament will soon debate a law permitting people to smoke cannabis, and in July a new Portuguese law comes into effect that will decriminalize the personal use of all drugs, hard and soft.

The British government announced recently it would draw up new guidelines for police, recommending that they do nothing when small quantities of cannabis are found; French authorities do not prosecute 95 percent of cannabis-possession cases, and in Spain, Italy, and most German regions the police turn a blind eye. Only in Sweden and Greece have authorities still fixed their goal on a drug-free society.

European drug officials insist that their policies do not mean they have surrendered to drugs.

Dutch police regularly cooperate with their Belgian, German, and French counterparts in seizing large quantities of cannabis and other illicit substances in operations to control roads and trains.

Instead of an all-out war on drugs, European governments are increasingly turning to what they call "harm reduction" policies. "We don't want to chase drug users," says Nicoline van der Arend, an adviser to the Dutch Minister of Justice. "If we don't arrest them and put them in prison, perhaps they will be willing to have treatment."

"We treat them as addicts, not as criminals. The fundamental point is that this is a public-health problem more than a law-and-order problem," argues Peter Pennekamp, director general of the Dutch Health Ministry. "If you are aware that risks are being taken, you can either ignore it, or do something to reduce the risks."

That approach has spurred the creation of needle-exchange programs throughout Western Europe, giving addicts clean syringes so as to lower the chances they will be infected with HIV or hepatitis. Germany and Spain have recently followed Holland's example and opened "shooting rooms," where drugs can be consumed under hygienic and supervised conditions. All 15 EU members run substitution programs, offering heroin addicts methadone instead. And Dutch voluntary organizations take mobile pill-testing labs to rave parties, checking the quality of the Ecstasy often sold to dancers.

All European governments run widespread campaigns to persuade young people not to take drugs. They say this realism pays off. In Holland, for example, the number of cannabis users is about average for Europe, and the number of "problematic" hard-drug users is among the lowest on the Continent. Holland has the lowest overdose death rate in Europe, except for France. The Dutch are alone, however, in permitting coffee shops to sell as much as five grams of hashish or marijuana per customer.

This is a bid to keep young people who want to smoke marijuana out of hard-drug circles, which they might fall into if they frequented illegal dealers.

But the policy is full of ambiguities and paradoxes: Coffee shops may sell to customers, for example, but their suppliers are breaking the law. "We pay taxes on everything we sell," says Vijay Shamdas, the barman at Kadinsky's. "But they don't know what we bought or what it cost because they turn a blind eye."

Few of Holland's neighbors are expected to go as far as The Hague has gone. Belgium is going half-way, decriminalizing cannabis and boosting government funds for programs that educate young people to stay away from drugs, or help rehabilitate drug addicts. "Prevention is better than cure, and a cure is better than punishment," the ministries of Health and Justice said in a joint statement.

"We want to avoid making cannabis use seem normal, but we don't want to dramatize it either," said a government announcement. "We will put the emphasis on prevention, and the authorities should intervene only when consumption [of cannabis] gives rise to problems."

Portugal has taken a wider approach, decriminalizing the use of all drugs as part of a new public-health strategy to be launched in July. There, says Mr. Ballotta, "decriminalization is a tool to improve the treatment option. You keep the user out of prison, so that you can try to start a treatment and rehabilitation process."

After years of vilification from neighboring governments for running a "narco-state," Dutch officials are quietly pleased to see their policies copied. "We say that our policy suits The Netherlands, that people should take the information here and fit it to their countries," says Mr. Pennekamp. "Slowly people are getting inspired."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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