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Europe Finds U.S. Drug War Lacking in Results;
American, Dutch Approaches Seem to Be 2 Extremes

Linnet Myers
Chicago Tribune
November 2, 1995

The cop on the beat didn't even pause as he passed the Greenhouse Effect coffee shop. Inside, marijuana was on the menu. The police station was just across the street.

As the pungent smoke wafted down the block, a disgusted middle-aged visitor from Minnesota approached Jan Biemolt, the nonchalant officer.

"We found out in the States that doing drugs has consequences for everyone. . . . We need values, ethics, self-discipline, denial," the American said.

Biemolt listened politely, then asked, "What about the money spent for your war on drugs? Did it solve the problem?"

The street-corner encounter is a microcosm of an international debate in which the Netherlands and the U.S. represent two extremes in the Western industrialized world.

In Europe, many countries focus on drug treatment or on reducing the crime and disease that accompany the illegal trade in drugs. The Netherlands allows open marijuana use and views those addicted to hard drugs as "patients," not criminals.

Even within Europe, the Netherlands is considered radical and is revising its policies. But European countries continue to experiment with non-punitive measures: Switzerland is trying a program that offers heroin to addicts - a longtime practice in England that the Netherlands soon will try.

Meanwhile, the U.S. spends billions on its "drug war," stepping up arrests and filling prison cells. As American cities struggle with drug epidemics and the violent crime they can bring, the mere mention of legalization can provoke a political storm.

As former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders discovered last year, there is little tolerance in America's drug debate for advocates of decriminalization.

But Americans' tough talk on drugs doesn't impress European crime experts, who say the U.S. has little to show when it comes to results and could learn from Europe's varied approaches.

"You can put them (drug abusers) in a cell. So what? You pay a lot," said Derk Van der Woude, spokesman for the Amsterdam Health Service, which treats the city's addicts. "I know a country that tried to prohibit the trade of alcohol - your country. You ended up with Al Capone."

Some experts argue that America isn't ready to follow Switzerland or Holland because the U.S. is plagued by poverty, child abuse and other social problems that can drive people to drugs.

Moreover, the U.S. lacks a thorough treatment and prevention network like the one in Europe, said Dr. Carl Bell, who heads the Community Mental Health Council on Chicago's South Side. Decriminalization "by itself . . . is opening Pandora's box," Bell said.

The debate doesn't simply pit Europeans against Americans. At the headquarters in France of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), Secretary General Raymond Kendall also calls for decriminalization of drugs, saying police can't effectively respond when "thousands of people are breaking the law every day."

And in the 1990 Frankfurt Resolution, several European cities urged decriminalization because, they said, "illegality is the primary factor causing the misery, deaths and . . . criminality of addicts."

Last year, however, 21 cities formed European Cities Against Drugs and signed the Stockholm Resolution rejecting all moves to legalize drugs. Stockholm Mayor Carl Cederschioeld said the group seeks to send "a clear and distinct message to cities such as Amsterdam (the Netherlands), Zurich (Switzerland), Hamburg and Frankfurt (Germany)," where "lax politics cause more young people to ruin their lives."

Yet Dutch officers such as Biemolt argue that their society has been effective in keeping drug abuse and drug-related violence at bay.

Dutch government statistics show that 13 percent of their high school students have used marijuana, considerably lower than the U.S. figure of 28 percent. Moreover, while officials warn of an increase in heroin use in America, the Dutch say that young people no longer are joining the ranks of Amsterdam's junkies; less than 2 percent are under 22 years old.

Although drugs and violent crime often are linked in America, the violent crime rate in the Netherlands is far lower than in the U.S., despite the Netherlands' more liberal drug policies. There were 1.9 homicides in Holland per 100,000 people in 1993. The U.S. rate was 9.5 homicides per 100,000.

After years of open drug use, today "the crime rate is going down substantially in all of Amsterdam," said Jan Van Dijk, head of the Dutch Justice Ministry's crime-prevention division. Striving for violence-free, drug-free streets, America's yearly arrests for drug possession, sale or manufacturing reached 1.1 million by 1993, according to the FBI. The U.S. has raised its federal drug-control budget to $13.3 billion this year, a dramatic increase from $1.5 billion in 1981.

But brutal crimes, including killings over sales turf, still happen daily in America. The latest Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of U.S. prison inmates in 1991 found that 27 percent of robbers admitted they committed crimes to buy drugs; 30 percent of burglars said so, and 5 percent of convicted murderers did.

Even if Europe has had more success in stemming violence, some observers say drug policies that work in Europe could mean disaster in the U.S., with its widely different culture, economy and population.

When U.S. attitudes about drugs relaxed during the 1970s, she noted, there was "an astonishing escalation" of drug abuse, said Sue Rusche, president of the National Drug Prevention League.

Still, the Dutch argue that it is the illegality of drugs - not the drugs themselves - that leads to crime, and some American experts agree.

John J. Donohue III, a Northwestern University law professor who researched U.S. homicide rates, argued that the same held true for alcohol during Prohibition.

"After Prohibition, the murder rate dropped rather sharply and stayed low until the mid '60s," when the drug trade began to expand, Donohue said.

Dutch police say the coffee shops have lifted "soft" drugs like marijuana out of the criminal underworld, separating them from harder drugs like heroin and cocaine, which aren't sold openly.

That way, young people who experiment with marijuana or hashish aren't drawn into a violent culture, and fewer youths are becoming hard-core drug addicts, they contend.

The Dutch don't emphasize arrests but focus on "harm reduction" - keeping drug users "alive, healthy and crime-free," said Ernst Buning, a psychologist who helped create Amsterdam's drug program.

So far, Europe largely has been spared an epidemic of crack cocaine like the one in America. Though crack appeared a few years ago, users seem to prefer cocaine in its powdered form, authorities said.

But the Netherlands is beginning to back away from some of its controversial policies in the face of rising pressure. The revised policy would gradually close down a substantial number of coffee shops, raise the customer age limit to 18 from 16, and cut the maximum marijuana purchase from 30 grams to 5 grams, said Dutch State Secretary for the Interior Jacob Kohnstamm.

The changes may calm neighboring countries such as Sweden and France, which complain that their youths become "drug tourists" in Holland, bringing drugs home to sell. The revisions also respond to Dutch residents who were so angry at unruly drug tourists that they began to stone French cars, Kohnstamm said.

Even as it modifies some policies, the Netherlands is tempting further protest by announcing a plan to prescribe legalized heroin. It is following Switzerland, which in turn looked at Britain before beginning its experiment in January 1994.

In Britain's Cheshire County, Dr. John Marks prescribes heroin and cocaine to addicts, a treatment permitted in Britain for decades.

Inspector Michael Lofts of the Cheshire County Police studied 142 heroin and cocaine addicts from 1988 to 1991. He found they averaged 6.88 criminal convictions in the 18 months before receiving legal drugs, mostly for theft and robbery. That dropped to 0.44 convictions in the 18 months afterward, he said.

Marks came under fire, though, largely because prescription drugs "leaked" onto the black market, Lofts said. Marks blames cutbacks in his program on international pressure channeled through the American government, which he said viewed his activities as politically "unacceptable."

Despite the problems, the Swiss became keenly interested in the British system after Zurich tried an "open drug scene" that dramatically failed.

In the mid-1980s, Zurich instituted Needle Park, an outdoor drug-shooting gallery littered with needles and blood that dripped from addicts' arms. The scene later moved but remained home to junkies.

Authorities initially "thought it'd be a better way, to have the people in a certain area . . . to give them medical help," said Peter Muller, vice director of the Swiss Justice Ministry. But crime soared in the community near the scene, and this February police shut it down.

By then, the Swiss already were trying an even more radical approach. Long-term addicts were chosen for the three-year trials. Many were homeless, jobless, HIV patients, prostitutes or criminals, said Margret Rihs-Middel, coordinator of drug research at the Swiss Office of Public Health.

All had gone through programs designed to force them to kick their habits, but they failed, she said. Swiss researchers now are convinced that it is almost impossible to force junkies to quit unless they are ready to do so.

Until then, 800 addicts get government heroin for about $13 a day, compared to perhaps $100 a day on the black market, Rihs-Middel said.

They must take their drugs on-site, avoiding the British problem of drugs entering the black market, said Andre Seidenberg, head doctor at one of the clinics. He said many addicts transformed themselves virtually before his eyes; as they cleaned up, their health improved and prostitution declined. Some even found normal jobs.

Most surprising to him was the impact on crime. "I thought criminality was a lifestyle," Seidenberg said. "I didn't think getting enough money (for drugs) was that strong a factor."

He found it was: 55 of his patients had 254 contacts with police between January 1992 and the time they joined the program, which started in January 1994. Afterward, the addicts had only 13 contacts with police as of March, he said.

A national referendum on whether to make the program permanent is expected when the trials end in 1997. Seidenberg said some people hope the project eventually will include cocaine, a move that would spark even greater controversy.

Marcel Bebie, chief of Zurich Police criminal investigations, grudgingly supports the experiment. He warned that "cocaine makes you very aggressive" and could pose an even greater risk than heroin if legalized.

The United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board, which initially balked at approving heroin imports for the Swiss, warned that cocaine would "add to the anxiety of the international community," said board secretary Herbert Schaepe.

As it is, the Swiss already are drawing fire. "The Swiss government is the greatest drug trafficker in Europe today," said Torgny Peterson, the Swedish director of the European Cities Against Drugs.

Dutch police, anticipating their own heroin program next year, argue that open drug policies already have made their jobs easier and less dangerous.

"There's always a first time for every good thing that has happened in the world," said Amsterdam police Lt. Co Rykenberg. "And maybe we're the first."


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