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Position Papers and Speeches

Legalization or Zero Tolerance? The Cannabis Debate

Re-printed from the Daily Mail Monday 30th July 2001
by David Jones

Senior politicians have suggested the laws on cannabis should be revised after a new survey for the department of Health shows drug use among children is soaring.  But should cannabis be legalized?  On Saturday in the Mail we asked people from all walks of life for their opinion – and intriguingly it was those in medicine and law enforcement who warned against liberalization.  Today, we publish a special investigation comparing two very different  policies on drug use in two European countries to see which is most effective.

The unmarked police patrol van suddenly brakes and two plain clothes officers step briskly on to the pavement, blocking the path of a group of teenagers wandering, apparently innocently, through their leafy suburban housing estate.  “Hi, kids, how are things going?”  begins Inspector Alex Hermansson.  His tone is affable, but the youths, aged between 15 and 18, are apprehensive, for they know full well that this is more than a friendly chat.  As Hermansson engages them in conversation, his colleague, Lars-Hakan Lindolm, checks each one for signs of drug abuse.  First he looks into their eyes.  Are the pupils dilated?  Then he examines their jaws:  is anyone chewing excessively – a classic symptom of Ecstasy use – or grinding their teeth, as amphetamine takers often do?   This time, all the friends appear ‘clean’ and within a few minutes they are allowed to walk on.  Yet the merest hint that they had taken any drug would have seen them arrested, their urine or blood tested, and brought before the courts.

Contrast this scene with another, which I had witnessed a few days earlier, in an equally respectable looking residential area only a few hundred miles away.  It was a warm summer’s evening and children were playing in the streets, but all around the Lucky Luke ‘coffee shop’ the air was redolent of sticky sweet marijuana fumes.  In theory, the people who go there to get legally stoned or buy their takeaway cannabis supplies – characters ranging from jobless hippies to smart business executives – are not supposed to smoke their reefers out of doors.

However, in practice, several of the licensed dope den’s customers casually lit joints, knowing the police would admonish them at worst, but would more likely smile and wave them on their way.

This is a tale of two countries whose attitude towards drugs could not be farther apart.

The first, Sweden, is hell-bent on creating a drug-free society.  Its relentless pursuit of this seemingly unattainable ideal is taking the fight against drugs to tough new levels, unprecedented in the Western World.  The second, Holland, has – willingly or not – won a reputation as Europe’s drugs capital.  Hordes of tourists go there to take advantage of its liberal cannabis laws, which could soon be relaxed still more to allow production and bulk sales, as well as personal use.

In recent weeks, Britain has been lurching ever closer towards the Dutch model, with politicians to the left and right supporting the growing clamor to legalize cannabis.  The question is:  Which of these two contrasting societies would you prefer to live in?

The statistics might help you to make up your mind.  In Sweden, only 2 of every 100 people aged between 15 and 25 are likely to have smoked cannabis in the past year;  in Holland it is about seven times more (and a staggering eight times more in Britain).

Surely not coincidentally, the use of hard drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines, is appreciably lower in Sweden, too.  So is the prevalence of drugs-related crime, though this is rising in both countries.

In Sweden, the mass production of drugs remains negligible, while Holland – which churns out up to 80% of the worlds ecstasy and truckloads of powerful ‘Nederweed’ cannabis – has been branded the drug baron of Europe.  Despite these alarming facts, I leaned towards legalization before embarking on this comparative study.  The prospect of a few hash cafes seemed unlikely to threaten the fabric of society.  And the casual use of cannabis is imbued so deeply in British youth culture that decriminalization seemed, if not desirable, wearily inevitable.  Ten days touring Holland and Sweden has changed my thinking completely.

The trail began with Amsterdam and the Grasshopper, a vast neon-lit dope-fiends’ mecca that shimmers invitingly in the vice-ridden part of the city.  As I arrived, I was instantly disabused of the myth trotted out by Dutch drugs policy apologists.  If we listen to them, the tolerance of cannabis in a controlled environment has succeeded in separating the hard and soft drugs market.

When you buy hashish in a ‘coffee shop’, the accepted wisdom runs, at least you’re not being hassled to buy something worse, such as heroin.  This is nonsense.  Even before I had paid my taxi driver I was being harassed by a scruffy Middle Eastern pusher who tried to press sugar-cube sized rocks of crack cocaine into my hand – something that has never happened to me in Leicester Square or Piccadilly.  Such dealers target the major cannabis cafes, where stoned youths provide easy pickings.

Away from the squalid red light area, smaller coffee shops such as Dutch Flowers, a quaint canal-side establishment, can mislead the first-time visitor into thinking Holland’s dope houses are no more dangerous than the Rovers Return.  As I perused a menu, featuring Spirit of Amsterdam (a Dutch grown favorite) and Morocco Unique (a medal winner in the annual cannabis cup), Marcel, the friendly manager, smoked the profits and extolled the virtues of Holland’s approach.

The cafes were largely peaceful and well run, he said.  Bosses such as his own, who runs four coffee shops, upheld strict licensing laws that banned anyone under 18 and restricted the amount a customer could buy to five grams – sufficient for perhaps five strong joints.  Listening to Marcel talk, and watching his young customers – some British dope tourists – quietly smoke themselves into a stupor, it all seemed rather harmless.  But then, as the weed loosened his tongue, a darker picture began to emerge.

The law states that the cafes can keep only a kilogram of cannabis on their premises at any time.  On busy days, this stash can run out several times.  But the production and large scale supply of cannabis remains illegal – so where did replenishment come from?

“It’s a real back-door story,”  Marcel said, lowering his voice. “Mostly we buy from middle men.  Much of it is smuggled in from Morocco or Afghanistan.  Let’s just say we have to be very discrete.”

The ‘back-door story’ has been one of Europe’s great untold scandals since Holland relaxed its cannabis laws more than 25 years ago.  Ridiculously, the country allows cannabis to be sold in approved outlets (currently, 800 are licensed by local authorities), yet everything else to do with the drug is illegal – from growing it to importing it.  Anyone who cultivates or imports cannabis is committing a criminal offence.  This double standard has been exercising the Dutch parliament, and MPs recently voted to end the hypocrisy by regulating the entire cannabis market, from plant to pipe.

So far, however, the government refuses to sanction these proposals.  Even it is not sufficiently laid back to risk the international outcry that would result.  While the debate goes on, the shadowy figures who control the Dutch trade thrive.

The following day, I discovered just how easily they make their fortunes, right under the noses of the authorities, when I crossed the famous wartime ‘Bridge too Far’ and entered Arnhem.  There, at the Lucky Loop coffee shop, I met an amiable, attractive couple, both 21, Denis Holdyk and Krysta Slykhuis.

Though they shared the strongest joint on offer – the mind-blowing White Widow – they remained remarkably lucid, their tolerance bolsted by smoking cannabis almost every day since they were 13.

Somewhat recklessly, Holdyk soon disclosed that he was one of around 500 cannabis growers who supply the cafes in and around the city.  He began business three years ago, with five plants, but was now renting two apartments as cannabis nurseries, and reckoned to make around £80,000 a year.  One day, he said, he would leave Holland and launder the money.  “Then I will retire to my yacht and get high all day,” he smiled.

My first reaction, I confess, was one of muted admiration.  After all, here was a young man who seemed to believe in what he was doing, and had turned a small (albeit illegal) business into a roaring success.

As the evening wore on, however, I realized that Holdyk and his girl friend were not the earnest, untroubled entrepreneurial couple they presented.  Both suffered recurring psychiatric problems, and it was impossible to believe their blind insistence that smoking huge quantities of cannabis (and, in Krysta’s case, taking almost every other drug) was not to blame.  They also boasted of helping a jailed associate to smuggle drugs into prison.

“We wrapped a big piece of hash inside some silver paper and he swallowed it,” said Holdyk.  “that man became the richest guy in the prison”.

If I still needed proof that the great Dutch drugs experiment has failed, I found it in the Southern frontier town of Venlo.  Two decades ago, this 90,000 strong community supported just one licensed coffee shop selling cannabis.  Today, there are more than 60, but of that number only five have licenses – the rest are illegal.

And, to the horror of its citizens, Venlo has become a drugs cash-and-carry for droves of German shoppers, who need to drive only three miles across the border.  To stroll along the River Maas, even at lunchtime, is like stepping into some oriental opium bazaar.  The peddlers, almost exclusively Turkish, urge you inside seedy shops selling cannabis paraphernalia.  But many offer harder drugs, too.

Parking my car opposite these dubious shops, I glanced through the window of a grubby, white van.  Inside, a middle-aged man was smoking heroin from silver foil.  Small wonder that most parents have banned their children from walking beside the river.

Belatedly, the burghers of Venlo are endeavoring to reclaim their once safe town.  With the backing of the Dutch government, they have launched Operation Hector, a £25 million project aimed at shutting down the drugs denizens.

Andre Rouvoet, an MP for the small Christian Unison party, is among the small number of Dutch politicians who wish they could turn back the clock.  Asked what he thought might happen if Britain were to legalize cannabis, he said: "Let me give you some good advice.  Don’t. Just don’t.”

And so to Sweden.   A generation ago, this fiercely independent nation of nine million souls might easily have gone the way of Amsterdam, but at the height of the bohemian Sixties, something went wrong.  The Swedish government had empowered certain named doctors to prescribe narcotics to anyone claiming to be addicted.

The system was widely abused and one of the junkies supplied an overdose to his fiancée, who died.  The story caused a national scandal.  At roughly the same time, a Swedish professor, Nils Begerot, published a major study of drug misuse.  He concluded that soft drugs invariably let to harder ones and that abuse was akin to an epidemic, which spread inexorably through the population.

Thus was Sweden’s hardline policy born.  The first laws were drafted in 1968, but they have been sharpened over the years, so that now all narcotics, from cannabis upwards, are regarded seriously, and even their presence in the bloodstream is punishable with prison.

The police camp on the doorsteps of known drug sellers and users, continually stopping and searching them.  No drugs offence, however petty, is overlooked.  Even small-time cannabis smokers can expect to be arrested and fined, over and over again.  If they don’t kick the habit, they might be sent for compulsory treatment in an addiction center.  Some are jailed.

Constantly badgered like this, even hardened habitual offenders throw in the towel. In Malmo’s central prison I spoke to Faruk  Haliti, 25, who started using drugs at 14 and later joined a notorious, violent Gothenburg gang.  Tired of being hounded, he has opted to end his latest sentence – two years for possessing a machine gun and cocaine – in a therapy unit.

“I’ve been in prison maybe ten times and I’ve had enough,” he said “I’m going to try to straighten myself out.”

The Swedes are determined to prevent more children from growing up like Haliti.  To that end, school pupils are required to fill in questionnaires about their drug habits, and where there is evidence of abuse, action is swiftly taken.  I saw the evidence of the programme’s efficacy when I ventured into Rosegarde, Malmo, one of Sweden’s toughest high-rise estates, where 70% of its largely immigrant population are jobless.

If this were Peckham, say, or Moss Side, a smorgasbord of drugs would have been on offer.  Yet all the teenagers I spoke to there were horrified when I asked whether they smoked cannabis to ease their boredom.  “None of our friends takes anything like that,” said Petric Takiri, 15, a Kosovan.  “We value our health”.

Whether the Swedish model could ever succeed in Britain is open to question.  It would demand huge resources and require a monumental cultural shift.  According to Malmo police chief Thomas Servin, it is already too late.  “I would like Britain and all the EU countries to follow our example, but I don’t think it will happen,” he said.

“In your country the attitude is different.  They sell cannabis openly, and you have this liberal view.”  Perhaps he is right, but I have returned home convinced that we should seriously consider giving Swedish-style zero tolerance a try.

Because, faced with the choice of raising my children in dope-fugged Holland or squeaky clean Sweden, I know which country I would choose.