Not so soft: marijuana goes superpotent
Whether the Dutch actually like it or not, the Netherlands' drugs policy is one of the country's biggest tourist attractions. That policy is to tolerate certain 'soft' drugs.
Small amounts of marijuana and hashish may be sold in ‘coffeeshops’, even though Dutch law officially prohibits the sale of narcotics.
However, a fierce debate is currently raging over this 'toleration' policy because some researchers now say that smoking large amounts of either marijuana or hashish is potentially hazardous. The staff and residents of an addiction clinic in The Hague, for example, resoundingly reject the notion that soft drugs are not addictive for young people.
It's a discussion that has been running for some time: does Dutch drug toleration encourage drug use and foster addiction among young people? The policy allows anyone over the age of 18 to buy small amounts of soft drugs and to cultivate five marijuana plants at home for personal use.
Recently, conservative US broadcaster Fox News pointed an accusing finger at the Netherlands:
"Amsterdam is the Sodom and Gomorrah of the world and Dutch people float along the streets, higher than a kite, stoned out of their brains on marijuana and hash".
However, statistics released by the Trimbos Institute, a renowned expertise centre on mental health and addiction, revealed that the Netherlands has far fewer drug addicts than most other Western countries.
That's the good news. The bad news comes from Brijder addiction treatment centre in The Hague.
Therapist Sandra Beltjens explains how the clinic works. There's a detox section where young people between the ages of 12 and 21 spend their first few months, kicking their drink, cocaine, speed or, mainly, marijuana and hash habits. She says: "An important part of the process is sweating the drugs out in the sauna. They also do a lot of sports and they talk, a lot. We try and turn addicted youths into sociable human beings again."
Shaking like a leaf
Beltjens says between 80 and 90 percent of patients are young people who are addicted to soft drugs:
"It's mistaken to believe you can't become addicted to soft drugs. Some of the kids here shake like leaves in a high wind because they haven't had their fix. In the 60s and 70s, you'd smoke a joint with a whole group of people; everybody would take a hit and pass it along. Now everybody has their own joint. The percentage of THC, the active component in marijuana and hash, has tripled over the past decade. That means you get a huge amount of THC in one fell swoop and it's addictive".
In other words, soft drugs aren't soft anymore. The clinic's waiting list is meanwhile getting longer and longer.
No fun any more
Alex (18) knows what his therapist means from first-hand experience. He started smoking marijuana when he was 13. He was bullied at school and didn't have any friends, but when he was smoking dope, he felt relaxed and happy.
Slowly but surely, things started to go wrong: "At a certain point, nothing was fun any more unless I was high. TV shows that I always enjoy, they just weren't fun without a joint. The same with my favourite computer game, I didn't even turn it on unless I had smoked a joint. You don't know, but you're completely addicted. If you can smoke a joint after school or work and then get on with your life, then that's okay, but I couldn't anymore".
The therapist says smoking marijuana doesn't necessarily have to lead to addiction. Almost all teenagers experiment with drink and drugs and the vast majority do not become addicted. Parents play a key role in helping their children experiment safely. Parents should keep talking to their children; discussions about drink and drugs can strengthen the bond between parent and child and can also be fun. She says that ignoring the subject increases the risk of a child becoming addicted.
Sandra Beltjens refuses to comment on politics and Dutch drugs policies, but Alex's experiences have left him with some very clear ideas:
"It's ridiculous, officially, you're not allowed to cultivate drugs on a large scale, but coffeeshops still manage to get hold of large quantities of dope. It makes the law into a joke. Outlawing drugs is pointless because then it would be completely illegal and the problems will only become even bigger. I think that soft drugs should be handled in the same way that alcohol is. The law needs to be clear: soft drugs are for sale at certain places; the government is responsible for growing it and for regulating the THC content. No more fuzzy 'it's-not-allowed-but-you-can-do-it-anyway'. A clear and precise law, just like with alcohol".
Beginning of the end?
A court ruling on a case between the Dutch state and what was the country's largest coffeeshop, the Checkpoint in Terneuzen, is expected next month and could provide some clarity for Dutch toleration policies.
The coffeeshop, which has been closed down, has been accused of having contacts with criminal organisations and selling larger amounts of drugs than allowed under the vague tolerance policy. Depending on the verdict, it could be the beginning of the end for the famed Dutch tolerance of soft drugs.