Sun, Oct 16, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Dutch fear threat to liberalism in government curbs on ‘soft drugs’

The Christian Democrats want to restrict access to cannabis, arguing that it raises crime and brings in unwanted soft-drugs tourists, but critics don’t buy it

By Sara Webb  /  Reuters, AMSTERDAM

The Trimbos Institute, which studies addiction and mental health, said 5 percent of Dutch citizens smoked weed or hashish in the past year, against an EU average of 7 percent.

Policymakers around the world are seeking fresh ideas on how to combat drug abuse, opening up a debate on policies on soft drugs.

In June, a high-profile group of global leaders declared the “war on drugs” a failure and urged governments to consider decriminalizing drugs in order to cut consumption and weaken the power of organized crime.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy — which includes former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker and British billionaire Richard Branson — said a decades-long strategy of outlawing drugs and jailing users while battling drug cartels had not worked.

It recommended that governments experiment with the legal regulation of drugs, especially cannabis, citing the successes in countries such as the Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland, where drug consumption had been reduced.

Portugal, for instance, has gone much further than the Netherlands by decriminalizing all drugs, replacing jail time with counseling and treatment.

The Christian Democrats disagree and say the Dutch policy has had a negative effect on public health and crime.

“In other countries, there is no tolerance. The Dutch coffee shops attract a lot of foreign drug tourists, especially in the border region, causing much nuisance,” according to a statement published on the Christian Democratic Appeal Web site.

The party has cast doubt on the rationale for allowing coffee shops, which was to separate the soft and hard drugs markets, and said that people who smoke cannabis often turned to other drugs.

It also argues the active substance in cannabis is much stronger than 20 years ago, putting it on a par with harder drugs — a reflection of years of cultivation of new varieties by growers.

A Dutch commission earlier this year found that hashish and marijuana on sale in the Netherlands contain about 18 percent of THC, the main psychoactive substance, and said a level above 15 percent put the drugs on a par with heroin or cocaine.

Maxime Verhagen, a Christian Democrat who is deputy prime minister, said on Oct. 7 the government would ban the sale of cannabis whose concentration of THC exceeds 15 percent.

The Christian Democrats also want tougher regulations on the so-called cannabis plantations.

In addition to illegally supplying the coffee shops, “much of the illegally cultivated cannabis in the Netherlands is exported abroad. There is an extensive network illegally created in the grip of organized crime,” its statement said.

Dutch authorities already devote considerable resources to tracking down these large-scale plantations.

The police work with the local electricity company to detect unusual consumption patterns, for example round-the-clock usage in sheds and attics, and have used tiny sniffer-helicopters that can detect the smell of pot plants wafting from ventilation shafts and chimneys, according to media reports.

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