Whenever drug legalisation is debated, people look to the Dutch experience. For 30 years the Netherlands has displayed a tolerance unequalled in Europe and has been cited by pro-legalisation camps as an innovative success in the fight against addiction.
Rehabilitation is at the centre of its drugs policy. Cannabis use, although officially illegal, is not pursued as a criminal offence and people can go to state-monitored "coffee shops" to buy dope. Law enforcement agencies and the courts are reserved for drug dealers and traffickers.
Recently, those opposed to easing drug restrictions in the UK have been citing the Dutch case as a failure, pointing to a growth in drug-related crime and violence. They claim that the Dutch now realise the error of their ways and are about to change their policy. In fact, the proposed changes are very limited and the central philosophy remains the same. The government is proposing to cut the amount of cannabis allowed for personal use from 30g to 5g and intends to phase out some of the bars, discos and bistros where people can buy and consume dope.
Paul Vasseur is drug co-ordinator for Amsterdam, which has about 450 such "coffee shops", 180 in the inner city alone. He says the plans have nothing to do with a view that decriminalisation has failed as a drugs …