The Dutch Go to Pot

By Pape, Eric; Piore, Adam et al. | Newsweek International, September 15, 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Dutch Go to Pot


Pape, Eric, Piore, Adam, Endt, Friso, Radcliffe, Liat, Theil, Stefan, Valla, Marie, Newsweek International


Paul van Hoorn, 71, suffers from chronic glaucoma. His wife, Jo, 70, has painful arthritis. So every few days, the two septuagenarians shuffle to their local "coffee shop," ever watchful for robbers, to buy a little marijuana. Last week Dutch authorities decided that the van Hoorns, among many others, should change their ways--by going to their local pharmacy. Effective immediately, the government will begin dealing in Nederwiet, or Netherweed--cannabis, by another name, grown in state-sanctioned greenhouses and sold by prescription with official government approval.

That may not be such a stretch in a country famous for its cutting-edge life-style, where cafes legally sell pot along with cappuccino. Still, not so long ago the Netherlands might have faced condemnation, not only from Washington but across Europe. This time, though, while American anti-drug crusaders shake their heads in angry consternation, many Europeans are thinking of following suit. Britain, Belgium and Luxembourg are preparing to emulate the Netherlands in decriminalizing marijuana possession for personal consumption--and they will be watching the prescription experiment closely. Nor is this the most controversial of Europe's new approaches to drugs. In Spain last week, 60 heroin junkies began a pilot program in which for the next nine months, they will receive twice-daily injections of heroin, supervised by a state hospital. Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland have already launched similar programs. It's a far cry from the era when President Ronald Reagan found willing partners for his "get tough" policies. When it comes to the problems of drugs and addiction, says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, the United States these days is an "outlier," increasingly far from the European mainstream.

Actually, the Netherlands' new policy isn't as out-there as it might seem at first --glance. Official pot will be sold only for the alleviation of acute pain in the treatment of such diseases as cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis, as well as a handful of unusual ailments like Tourette's syndrome. No more than 15,000 patients are expected to receive the drug in the first year. Nonetheless, it's significant that nations that used to tailor their drug policies to U.S. concerns are today far less inclined to do so. Europeans are increasingly put off by what they see to be America's extremism--the stridency of the Bush administration's "zero tolerance" crime and anti-drug campaigns, its growing conservatism on social and cultural issues, its unilateralism in Iraq and go-it-alone unwillingness to abide by treaties and international norms held dear by Europeans, from environmental accords to agreements on international criminal justice. "People are saying, you can't hold us to some treaties and choose the ones you do and don't want to adhere to," says Eugene Oscapella, a lawyer in Ottawa who specializes in international drug issues. "There's a lot of skepticism about America," he adds, and it's spilling into other realms, including drug policies.

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