ALONG Amsterdam's commercial streets, brightly colored, often hand-lettered signs featuring rainbows or flowers or other `70s icons invite passers-by into a ``coffee shop.''
Sometimes located next to a more staid-looking establishment modestly called a ``cafe,'' the name ``coffee shop'' here indicates more than a penchant for English words: It is where one can purchase and consume ``soft'' drugs - marijuana, hashish - with impunity.
With some 300 in Amsterdam alone and hundreds more spread across the country, the coffee shop is the most visible public manifestation of a tolerant national drug policy which, after years of condemnation by neighboring countries, is drawing increasingly sympathetic attention. As Europe, and much of the rest of the world, grapples with proposals for drug-use decriminalization and even drug legalization, Dutch drug policy is no longer a pariah.
At the same time, more than a decade of experience is prompting the Dutch to limit their own tolerant policies even as others move closer to their example.
``We have been blamed for years, but now we have people from other countries coming to us to see what we do and how it might work in their culture and society,'' says Bernhard Scholten, international affairs manager with the Amsterdam Police Department. ``This is positive for us.''
Earlier this month, Germany's Constitutional Court ordered the country's 16 regional governments to stop arresting citizens found with small amounts of marijuana and hashish. Last year, Italians voted in favor of drug-use depenalization, while in Spain, drug use is unpunishable except in public places.
Even France, which remains perhaps the staunchest critic of the Netherlands drug policy, an ``experimental'' methadone distribution program for heroin addicts was approved this year in an effort to reduce AIDS among intravenous drug users. Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, who favors repressive drug laws but acknowledges mounting public confusion over what to do about illegal drugs, has called for a national debate on depenalization.
What European drug specialists find when they visit the Netherlands is a drug policy that reflects a tolerant society, shuns government intrusion, and values pragmatic approaches to problems. ``Realistic'' is a word that pops up time and again as Dutch officials describe the country's drug policies.
``Drug policy is in the first place belief,'' says Bob Keizer, head of the alcohol, drugs, and tobacco policy division of the Ministry of Welfare, Health, and Cultural Affairs. ``In other countries, the moral aspects prevail over a pragmatic approach and determine standards, while here we first look at the facts, and then we develop our standards.''
The ``facts,'' as the Dutch see them, are that drug addiction is a ``sickness'' that is better treated if the addict is not considered a criminal; and if young people are going to try drugs, even if just once, it is better to allow for that experimentation in an environment free of the most dangerous substances.
Such facts have yielded a policy that even Amsterdam's Mr. Scholten acknowledges is ``schizophrenic.'' While buying and selling illegal drugs, including marijuana, remains legally punishable in the Netherlands, possession of up to 30 grams of ``soft'' drugs is tolerated. The same is true for one gram of harder drugs - cocaine or heroin for example.
Within that policy, coffee shops are tolerated as a place where soft drugs may be bought and consumed without bringing the consumer into contact with the world of harder drugs. The coffee shops operate under a kind of honor code, backed up by public surveillance, that forbids the sale of ``hard'' drugs, sales to minors of any amount over 30 grams, and which outlaws drug publicity or acts of public nuisance.
``It's a policy based on harm reduction,'' Mr. Keizer says. ``We believe that by allowing for soft-drug use, we have broken the stepping-stone theory,'' according to which soft drugs lead to more addictive and dangerous drugs.
Studies on drug use in the Netherlands appear to back up that claim. While the percentage of the population using marijuana regularly or occasionally corresponds to levels in other Western countries, the number of hard-drug addicts has remained roughly stable. Since a more tolerant drug policy was implemented in the late 1970s, few young people have joined the hard-drug user ranks.
New drug developments like ``crack'' cocaine have made little headway in the Netherlands, and glue-sniffing is virtually nonexistent here, officials say.
Yet the Dutch appear to be acknowledging that their relaxing of the repressive aspects of drug policy probably have gone too far. With studies showing marijuana use up slightly, and a growing concern over academic failure among users, some observers are questioning the policy's effect on the country's youth.
Recently, officials have become stricter with the coffee shops, closing down a dozen in Amsterdam and a number in border towns where they were seen to encourage ``drug tourism.'' Concern has also grown that their concentration leads to neighborhood blight. Now officials are observing the proliferation of gambling machines in coffee shops - and are beginning to investigate the connection between the two activities. Of particular concern is how the legal machines might be a means of laundering illegal drug profits.
And signs are growing that the public is tiring of hard-core drug addicts who are seen to be taking advantage of tolerant policies designed to help them.
A new policy will give addicts the choice between treatment and prison - a retreat from the idea that the addict needs help, not removal, from society. ``Such a policy would have been impossible 10 years ago,'' Keizer says, ``but people are tired of having their car radios stolen to support a habit.'' Growing concern over how public rejection of drug tolerance may be contributing to the rise of a reactionary right has also prompted action.
Acknowledging a certain rebalancing of Dutch policy, Keizer says ``We were probably too optimistic in the `70s about what our policy could accomplish. Now we're following one of our own cultural traits. We're becoming more realistic.''