Legalization or Zero Tolerance? The Cannabis Debate
from the Daily Mail Monday 30th July 2001
by David Jones
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
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
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).
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
with the choice of raising my children in dope-fugged Holland or
squeaky clean Sweden, I know which country I would choose.