"Look at the Dutch example!"

That phrase has become a kind of mantra, chanted whenever the advocates of liberalizing drug laws in Europe or the United States gather. The Dutch, liberalization proponents argue, got it right by legalizing the public sale, under certain restraints, of cannabis products in their now-famous coffee shops and by adopting a much more lenient policy toward all forms of drug use and abuse based on a philosophy of "harm reduction."

But did they? It has been almost a quarter-century since the Dutch Parliament set Holland's drug policy on a course of its own, one markedly different from that of the rest of Europe. Surely 23 years is enough time to examine the consequences of that policy. How has it affected drug use and addiction in the Netherlands? What impact has it had on Holland's next-door neighbors, France, Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom? Do the results really justify holding the Dutch drug policy up as a model for other nations to follow? Or are they a warning about the risks of following the Dutch example?

The revised Dutch drug policy was based on Parliament's 1976 acceptance of the recommendation of a commission headed by Pieter A.H. Baan, a psychiatrist and expert in rehabilitating drug addicts who was serving at the time in the Dutch Office of Mental Health. The Baan Commission's report proposed distinguishing between so-called List One drugs -- those that present "an unacceptable risk (heroin, cocaine and LSD)" -- and List Two drugs -- cannabis products, such as hashish and marijuana -- seen as less dangerous and "softer." Essentially, Parliament depenalized the possession of 30 grams of marijuana or hashish -- enough, the legislators calculated, to meet an average smoker's needs for three months. At the same time, the parliamentarians vowed to continue the fight against both domestic and international trafficking in the more dangerous List One drugs.

Shortly after accepting the commission's primary recommendation, Parliament went a step further by authorizing the commercialization of cannabis products through their open sale in a network of licensed coffee shops. Those shops were subject to a number of legal constraints: they were not allowed to sell more than 30 grams to a customer; no hard drugs were to be sold on their premises; and they were neither to advertise, sell to minors, nor operate within 500 meters of a school. Out of respect for Holland's international treaty obligations, the import, export, production, or sale of cannabis products outside the coffee shops remained illegal.

At the time the Baan Commission report was adopted, Holland had what was considered a serious heroin addiction problem, albeit one roughly comparable to that of its European neighbors. The nation was relatively untroubled by major international drug traffickers, with the exception of a number of Chinese "triads" (gangs) whose trafficking was pretty much confined to the Dutch marketplace.

How has that situation changed today? First and most revealing, Holland (in the words of senior customs and police officers in the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium) has become "the drugs capital of Western Europe" -- and not just of those soft drugs depenalized by the Dutch Parliament but also of hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and now ecstasy.

Britain's Customs and Excise Department figures that 80 percent of the heroin seized in the United Kingdom either passed through or was temporarily warehoused in Holland. The Paris police estimate that 80 percent of the heroin consumed in the French capital comes from Holland. The forthcoming 1998 figures for France's Central Office for the Repression of the Illegal Traffic in Drugs will, one of the organization's senior officers says, show "an explosion" of drugs coming into France from the Netherlands.

"Holland has become the place for drug traffickers to work," states a senior officer at Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. "It's central. You've got guys there who have access to any kind of drug you want, smugglers who can deliver it for you to Liverpool or London. And it's an environment which is relatively trouble-free from a criminal's point of view. It's ideal, and it has become a magnet for our criminal types."

As a senior French narcotics officer puts it, "Holland is Europe's drug supermarket. Drugs of all kinds are freely available there. The price is cheap. Your chances of getting caught with them are minimal, and you can carry them home across our customs-free borders without a care."

Worse, the greatest drug problem facing European youth today comes from synthetic drugs like ecstasy and amphetamines that have spread across Europe like a virus since they were first introduced in Holland in 1987. British police estimate that a million of these pills are swallowed every weekend in British discos and clubs. Overwhelmingly, these synthetic drugs are coming from and being made in Holland. British customs states that virtually all the pills seized in the United Kingdom last year were manufactured in Holland or Belgium. Ninety-eight percent of the amphetamines seized in France in 1997 came from Holland, as did 73.6 percent of the ecstasy tablets. During an official briefing last summer, a senior Dutch police officer admitted to former General Barry McCaffrey, the U.S. drug-policy czar, that "Holland is to synthetic drugs what Colombia is to cocaine."

Holland's emergence as the drug capital of Europe is not due solely to the decision by the Dutch government to commercialize the sale of cannabis products in the nation's now-famous coffee shops. But many Europeans believe it is the consequence of the tolerant attitude toward drugs that grew out of that policy. That attitude, defined by Dutch foes of the policy as the "coffee-shop mentality," now permeates Holland's criminal justice system.

"If you want to do drugs, Holland is the place to do them," notes one of France's top drug police officers. "The light sentences they hand out [and] the liberal attitude of their judges has resulted in an explosion in the number of international trafficking groups operating out of Holland."

"As a drug dealer," a senior U.K. customs officer observes, "you are less likely to come to the attention of the police in Holland than you are in any other country in Western Europe. For our Dutch counterparts to get permission to conduct a surveillance operation is unbelievably difficult. It is absolutely impossible to place a bug in a drug dealer's home or office. Get arrested with 50 kilos of heroin or cocaine in France or England, and you'll be sentenced to 20 years to life [and] serve at least 17 of those years in prisons that are less than welcoming. Get arrested with the same amount of either drug in Holland, and the most you'll get is eight years, of which you'll serve only four in prisons, where you'll be in your own cell, with color TV and a stereo, and have the right to a conjugal visit twice a month from a woman who may -- or may not -- be your wife. Is it any wonder then that the country has become the drug traffickers' preferred working place?"

But what about the policy's consequences for the Dutch themselves? "Our liberal drug policy has been a failure, but its advocates are so rooted to their convictions they can't bring themselves to admit it," says Dr. Franz Koopman, director of De Hoop (The Hope) drug rehabilitation center in Dordecht and an open opponent of the Dutch policy. "First, we banalized cannabis use. We have left our kids with the idea that it's perfectly all right to smoke it, and from there it was an easy step for them to move to the notion that it's also okay to use mind-altering substances like ecstasy. It is that mentality that is behind the explosion in the use of these synthetics we've seen in the last three years, and [it] is a grave peril to this country just as it is to the rest of Europe."


Dutch critics of their nation's drug policy -- and even some of its proponents -- admit that it is characterized by at best wishful thinking and at worst hypocrisy. The Dutch even have an expression and a gesture for this: You place the palm of your right hand on the tip of your nose and spread your fingers. You are now "looking through the fingers" -- alles door de vingers zien -- seeing only what you want to see and blotting out the rest.

A good point to begin evaluating the Dutch policy is with the very drug that, in a sense, inspired it: cannabis. Legalizing the sale of cannabis products through licensed coffee shops at the end of the 1970s confronted the prospective owners of those shops with a problem. Where were they going to get their drugs from? After all, importing them into Holland was still illegal under the nation's international treaty obligations.

The answer they came up with was simple: grow it. Today, thanks to Dutch agricultural skills and the know-how of a coterie of American hash-lovers, Dutch cannabis growers produce their own homegrown cannabis, Nederwiet. It has a smooth taste, and many aficionados judge it the best marijuana on the market. It is also enormously potent. In 1976, the joints smoked in Holland, like those elsewhere in Europe, were the joints of the 1960s protest generation. They contained three to five percent THC (delta-nine-tetrahydro-cannabinol), the element that gives a joint-smoker a high. The thc content of today's joints can rise as high as 35 percent -- 10 times what it was when the Baan Commission decided to label cannabis a "soft" drug. The consumer who smokes that high-THC Nederwiet joint is going to get a faster, sharper, longer-lasting high then his or her parents would have gotten from their old-fashioned 1970s joints. Scientifically, however, the result is less beguiling.

"The impact of THC is proportional," notes Heather Ashton, a professor at the University of Newcastle's School of Neurological Sciences and Britain's leading expert on the medical effects of cannabis. "High THC-level joints develop a tolerance in the user so that he requires more of the high-level THC cannabis to get the high he's used to."

Insoluble in water, THC is absorbed by the fatty tissues of the body and brain and retained for longer than either alcohol or nicotine. Hence its debilitating effects -- short-term memory loss, diminished learning capacity, and lessened motor skills -- remain with heavy smokers for much longer than they may realize. The consequence, Ashton notes, is that "cannabis, in this new, more potent form, is not the benign product its advocates would have us believe. It may not be a hard drug, but 'soft' this new stuff most certainly is not. We now see a tendency toward a form of dependency among those who use it regularly." Bryan Wells, a doctor who is one of London's leading rehabilitation experts, agrees. "For the first time I am beginning to see something that resembles the withdrawal symptoms produced by hard drugs in heavy cannabis users."

Probably 70 percent of the cannabis now puffed in Holland's 1,500 coffee shops is Nederwiet. The result? "We see more and more people getting into trouble with cannabis," acknowledges Dr. J. A. Wallenberg, the director of the Jellinek Clinic, Holland's best-known drug abuse rehabilitation center. "We have indulged ourselves in a kind of blind optimism in Holland concerning cannabis. [Use of] this stronger THC cannabis has stabilized at too high a level. We see young users with psychological problems who use it as a form of self-medication. It can and does produce a chronically passive individual . . . someone who is lazy, who doesn't want to take initiatives, doesn't want to be active -- the kid who'd prefer to lie in bed with a joint in the morning rather than getting up and doing something."

Even Dr. Ernest Bunning of the Ministry of Health, the central repository of Holland's liberal drug philosophy, largely agrees. "There are young people who abuse soft drugs," he admits, "particularly those that have this high THC. The place that cannabis takes in their lives becomes so dominant they don't have space for the other important things in life. They crawl out of bed in the morning, grab a joint, don't work, smoke another joint. They don't know what to do with their lives. I don't want to call it a drug problem because if I do, then we have to get into a discussion that cannabis is dangerous, that sometimes you can't use it without doing damage to your health or your psyche. The moment we say, 'There are people who have problems with soft drugs,' our critics will jump on us, so it makes it a little bit difficult for us to be objective on this matter."


As the coffee shops boomed between 1984 and 1996, marijuana use among Dutch youths aged 18 to 25 leapt by well over 200 percent. In 1997, there was a 25 percent increase in the number of registered cannabis addicts receiving treatment for their habit, as compared to a mere 3 percent rise in cases of alcohol abuse. In 1995, public Ministry of Justice studies estimated that 700,000 to 750,000 of Holland's 15 million people -- about 5 percent of the population -- were regular cannabis users. A much more recent study just completed by Professor Pieter Cohen of the University of Amsterdam disputes those figures, claiming that only 325,000 to 350,000 Dutch men and women are regular cannabis users. Unfortunately, however, his survey discovered that those smokers are particularly concentrated among the young in densely populated areas of Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Rotterdam. In the last three to four years, these same areas have witnessed a skyrocketing growth in juvenile crime and the number of youths involved in acts of violence associated by many Dutch law-enforcement officers with the abuse of "soft" drugs. With remarkable candor, Amsterdam Police Commissioner Jelle Kuiper declared more than 18 months ago, "As long as our political class tries to pretend that soft drugs do not create dependence, we are going to go on being confronted daily with problems that officially do not exist. We are aware of an enormous number of young people strongly dependent on soft drugs, with all the consequences that has." A few months later, his counterpart in The Hague, the de facto Dutch capital, echoed his views: "Sixty-five percent of the persistent rise we are seeing in criminality is due to juveniles and above all juvenile drug users."

To what extent can that rise be attributed to the impact of Dutch youth's grass of choice, Nederwiet? The question cannot be easily answered. What is striking, however, is the boom in Nederwiet's production. When the coffee shops came into being in 1979, Nederwiet did not, for all practical purposes, exist. Today, according to Holland's "grass guru," Professor Adrian Jansen of the Economics Faculty of the University of Amsterdam, the annual Nederwiet harvest is a staggering 100 tons a year, almost all grown illegally. And it does not stay in the Netherlands. Perhaps as much as 65 tons of pot is exported -- equally illegally -- to Holland's neighbors. Holland now rivals Morocco as the principal source of European marijuana. By the Dutch Ministry of Justice's own estimates, the Nederwiet industry employs 20,000 people. The overall commercial value of the industry, including not only the growth and sale of the plant itself but the export of high-potency Nederwiet seeds to the rest of Europe and the United States, is 20 billion Dutch guilders, or about $10 billion -- virtually all of it illegal and almost none of it subject to any form of Dutch taxation. The illegal export of cannabis today brings in far more money than that other traditional Dutch crop, tulips.

Jansen estimates that this pot crop -- a direct outgrowth of Holland's drug policy -- comes from some 25,000 to 30,000 small- to medium-scale producers, most of them growing their grass indoors, in a garage, a basement, or a back room. Under Dutch law, anyone may possess five plants for personal use. Virtually all those growers are raising far more than that because, as an American narcotics officer in The Hague notes, "the profits from growing Nederwiet are tremendous, way out of proportion to any risks the grower runs."

One grower is a smiling man -- I'll call him Hendrik -- who lives in the Spangen quarter of Rotterdam. You begin, he explained, with a seedling from a female plant. If you start with seeds, you won't know until your plants have matured how many of them are going to be male and how many female. Cannabis grows fast; Hendrik gets four crops a year in his garage. The key to his installation is his overhead battery of 1,000-watt Philips high-intensity lamps. He keeps his plants under the lights 18 hours a day and has the bulbs rigged to a pulley so he can raise them as the plants grow.

Hendrik's electricity bill? He doesn't have one. He taps into the Rotterdam power supply illegally, as do most of the hundreds of home cannabis-growers in the city. The only real danger in his operation is the smell, which can alert a passing cop or disturb the neighbors. To deal with that, he's installed a pair of carbon air-filtering devices.

When his seeds are ready to harvest, Hendrik seals them into plastic sandwich bags and lets them dry in a dark closet. Then he sells them to his dealer, whom I'll call Pieter, for between 4,000 and 5,000 guilders a kilo. Hendrik reckons that his 40-square-meter "garden" yields 35 kilos of grass a year, earning him about 120,000 guilders (about $60,000) after his expenses -- not bad for a part-time activity.

Where does his harvest go? Straight to the United Kingdom. Pieter used to specialize in smuggling Moroccan hash to Holland and Britain, but not anymore. The Dutch do not smoke much Moroccan hash in their coffeehouses these days. The market is swamped with "product," so to get real money, Pieter trades in England. Three years ago, Pieter says, if someone had asked him, "Can you handle 3,000 kilos of Nederwiet?" he would have laughed. Today, it is routine. To ship his "product," he vacuum-packs it and slips it into chemical container trucks. No dog can smell it, and British customs officers, he says, "don't like to mess with chemicals. You have a 99 percent chance you don't get caught."

For Pieter and Hendrik, the risks of their operation are minimal. Jaap Deleeuw, Rotterdam's able assistant police commissioner, says the police bust a home grower like Hendrik every two or three days. Those arrests are almost always made because a neighbor has complained of the smell of cannabis, not because of any aggressive police work. How much time do growers like Hendrik serve? He shrugs. The answer is practically none. As for Pieter the dealer, the absolute maximum he could get for smuggling cannabis out of the country is four years; two years -- of which he would serve one -- would be much more likely.

The Dutch police do try to go after major growers, but here too, the sentences are feeble deterrents. One recent raid in Hulst, a town near the Dutch-Belgian border, netted 30,000 marijuana plants in three beautifully equipped greenhouses. If they are unlucky, the three Dutchmen and the Belgian arrested there will get the maximum four-year sentence for a cannabis offense -- and that for an enterprise that was earning them well over a million dollars a year.

One area left untouched by Dutch law enforcement is the booming "home grow" industry -- shops whose sole function is to help their customers set themselves up as cannabis growers. That's because they are legal -- provided, of course, they do not sell to foreigners, which, in fact, virtually all of them do. There are approximately 200 such shops, with names like Mellow Yellow, Plant 2000, Greenpoint, and Home Grow. Walk into one, and the helpful staff will give you a full rundown on how to grow pot in your garage or backyard -- instruction manuals, fertilizers, insecticides, the right high-density lamp, and so on. Then they will recommend which seeds -- k-2, b-52, White Widow, Black Domina -- are the best, guaranteed to produce cannabis with a THC content that will knock your ears off. The shops are not cheap, but as a final gesture, the friendly proprietor will probably throw in a marker pen with a hollow butt in which you can slip your seeds past the best customs officer in the world.


In the 1970s, advocates of Holland's coffee-shop policy argued that providing soft-drug users with a shopping outlet in which to buy their drugs would keep them from falling prey to drug-peddling criminals. At the same time, they would be corralled off from hard-drug users into a congenial environment of their own. Petty criminality would fall, and hard-drug consumption would be cut by offering young people an attractive alternative.

That was the theory. Unfortunately, it did not work. A 1997 report on hard-drug use in the Netherlands by the government-financed Trimbos Institute acknowledged that "drug use is considered to be the primary motivation behind crimes against property" -- 23 years after the Dutch policy was supposed to put the brake on that.

Furthermore, the Trimbos report put the number of heroin addicts in Holland at 25,000, a figure so low that critics of the government say it "promotes a policy, not a reality." That statistic is based, the skeptics note, on the number of heroin addicts who actually come into contact one way or another with the nation's social or justice departments. The real figure, they maintain, is far closer to 35,000.

But even if one accepts the Trimbos figures as correct, they represent almost a tripling of the number of Dutch addicts since the country liberalized its drug policies. They also mean that Holland has twice as many heroin addicts per capita as Britain, which is known for having one of the most serious heroin problems in Europe. Furthermore, the number of heroin addicts being treated in the methadone-maintenance programs run by the Ministry of Public Health went from 6,511 in 1988 to 9,838 in 1997, an increase of just over 50 percent -- hardly an indication that heroin use has declined since the introduction of the coffee-shop law.

Dutch supporters of their lenient soft-drug policy argue that cannabis does not inevitably thrust the heavy smoker across a threshold into hard drug use. They are right. There is no compelling physiological link between cannabis smoking and heroin use, and by no means do all heavy pot smokers move on to hard drugs. But in France, for example, 80 percent of heroin addicts also are heavy consumers of marijuana or hashish. Koopman of The Hope rehab center says more than 90 percent of the heroin addicts that his institute has treated developed their habit after first becoming habitual grass smokers.

The sale of hard drugs at the coffee shops was strictly forbidden by the law that created them. That was an edict honored for years more in the breach than in the observance. Michel Bouchet, now an officer of the French Ministry of the Interior but for many years the head of the Paris narcotics squad, regularly sent his officers to Holland undercover to see if hard drugs were being sold in the coffee shops. Almost inevitably, they discovered that they were.

Recognizing the problem, a 1995 joint policy document of the Dutch Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Health, Welfare and Sport, Justice, and the Interior instituted a "drastic" reduction in the number of coffee shops and cut the quantity of cannabis products that they could sell to an individual consumer from 30 grams to 5. The move was welcomed by many police officers like Rotterdam's Deleeuw, who acknowledges that he can now keep a much closer eye on the city's 65 coffee shops than he could on the 100-plus that existed in the city three years ago. But he and some of his fellow officers do recognize that there are "good" and "bad" coffee shops -- the latter now frequently in the hands not of Dutch but of Moroccan or East European owners, who are often less inclined to strictly follow the coffee-shop legislation.

Does it really matter? Getting hard drugs in Holland is a cinch. Walk out of Rotterdam's modern and refreshingly clean Marconiplein subway station. Cross the Europoint tramlines and walk down the muddy incline, past a set of rusting children's swings and slides -- no children there -- toward a line of dilapidated brick buildings, half of them with their windows boarded up. This is Rhijnvis Feithstraat in Spangen. Years ago, it was a struggling but respectable lower-middle-class neighborhood. Today, most of the residents along this street are drug dealers, handling crack, cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy. The dealer peers at you from behind a lace curtain. His scout on the doorstep checks you out before you can get in.

The police estimate that there are 200 such houses operating in Rotterdam at any given time, working out of semi-abandoned buildings like these. The dealers sublet them from a sublessee who has probably gotten his lease from a chain of other sublessees, all of whom screen the identity of the building's ultimate owner. They rent by the room for about 200 guilders a day, payable in cash. You can buy first-class heroin in such rooms for 80 guilders a gram, a third of what you would pay anywhere else in Europe. Cocaine will run a little more.

The police know those houses are there and have adopted a policy of quasi-tolerance toward them. They will do something about them -- if the neighbors complain. The dealers have figured that out, so their golden rule is, "Don't bother the neighbors, and the police won't bother you." If the neighbors need help moving a heavy piece of furniture, the dealers lend a hand. Someone's having a birthday? Send them flowers.

Most of the dealers' clients are local addicts. On the highways coming into Holland from Belgium, however, there are an estimated 500 "drug runners" whose job it is to lead likely prospects with foreign license plates to the drug houses to make their buys. A finger pressed to a nostril signals, "I have coke." A hand held over the mouth means, "I have ecstasy."

Rotterdam hosts another unique phenomenon: half a dozen abandoned tenements in which 30 to 40 addicts dwell. Each house is assigned a drug dealer who can come into the house daily and sell its inhabitants their fix. The houses were set up by a middle-aged woman named Nora Storm, the president of the city's junkies' trade union, the Junkiebund. Her apartment-dwellers don yellow rubber work clothes each morning and clean the city streets for 50 guilders (about $25) a day -- just enough money to keep them in their habit. Storm hopes that by settling in a "regular" environment and adhering to a normal working routine, some of those addicts may eventually try to kick the habit. The police know which houses have her Good Housekeeping seal of approval and close their eyes to the drug sales being made on their premises. Have any of her boarders kicked their habit? Well, Storm admits, not many. But some.

In Amsterdam, wander out behind the back of the Central Station, the stairways going down to the subway, or the back alleys behind the red-light district, where girls decorate the windows. You won't have to look for drug dealers. They'll find you. Five hundred, say, or a thousand ecstasy tablets? No problem. Can you do ten guilders a pill? Cash? Here? In an hour? Too much? How about eight guilders?

As in Rotterdam, the maximum sentence that those street dealers are going to get -- and this only after a couple of prior convictions and evidence that they were selling to half a dozen clients or so -- is two years. It is simply not Dutch policing policy to shut down those small street dealers. People like New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani may argue -- with some convincing statistics to back themselves up -- that to stop drug use, you have to go after the street dealers who fuel addicts' habits. But if the police were encouraged to do that, Holland's liberalizers argue, where would the addicts get their drugs?

Rotterdam's police have another justification for closing their eyes to the city's drug houses as long as the neighbors don't complain. Five years ago, dealers and their clients hung out in the city center, creating a nuisance and giving Rotterdam a bad image in the eyes of the thousands of foreigners who came to do business in the world's most important container port. Better to push the dealers into the city's poor outskirts, where the only foreigners likely to run into them have come to buy drugs anyway. Rotterdam's gambit is a classic example of Dutch "harm reduction" -- although, as is often the case, the harm being reduced is not so much the harm done to the addict as it is the harm he is doing to his surroundings.

Some European advocates of liberalizing drug laws, such as Paul Flynn, a Welsh Labour member of the British Parliament, argue that by making cannabis freely available to their youth, the Dutch have turned these kids away from heroin. And it is certainly true that in Holland, as in most other European countries, the heroin-addicted population is growing older. On the other hand, heroin addiction is usually a slow, insidious process; the youth who begins to consume it at 19 will probably take four to five years to reach the level of dependency that will force him or her to seek help.

But Koopman, at Dordecht's De Hoop rehab center, says that 40 percent of the 250 addicts awaiting treatment at his facility are younger than 25. You get the real answer about what is happening among young people in Holland from talking with young addicts in the Rotterdam headquarters of Storm's Junkiebund. The picture that emerges is remarkably similar to the youth drug scene elsewhere in Europe today.

"Kids are into everything now," says Dominy, 32, who has been smoking heroin since he was 15. "When I came into the scene, it was just heroin. Now it's coke, cannabis, ecstasy, speed, a blow of heroin to calm you down when you're up too far."

The real drug concerns in Holland today, as in the rest of Europe, are the skyrocketing rise in pill-popping and Holland's pivotal role in the manufacture and sale of ecstasy and amphetamine pills. Unfortunately, little is known about the long-term consequences of sustained ecstasy use. The best study so far, published in October 1998 in the British medical journal The Lancet, was done by the Biological Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Although the sample that the scientists employed in their study was small, it did reveal that prolonged, regular use of ecstasy can result in apparently irreversible damage to the serotonin receptors in the brain. The consequence could well be that some of today's heavy ecstasy users may find themselves burdened with chronic depression later in life.

"I am very worried about ecstasy," declares Dr. Wallenberg, the director of the Jellinek Clinic. "We must be very wary of a drug that has the potential of causing long-term brain damage, and this one does. With our tolerant attitudes, we just didn't want to see the danger here until ecstasy had spread everywhere like a virus."

Someone else worried about ecstasy is Dutch Prime Minister Willem Kok, who pounded on a table in 1996 and told his Ministry of Justice to "show our European neighbors we take this ecstasy problem seriously and that we're going to do something about it." The result was the creation in 1997 of an interregional police task force, the Unit Against Synthetic Drugs (USD), which employs 60 police officers in three divisions -- one to collect a database and work with other police forces, one to investigate pill labs, and one to work on the precursor chemicals and stamping machines needed to make the pills.

Theirs is a tough job. An ecstasy "lab" can easily be set up in a farmhouse kitchen equipped with an industrial food mixer, a few tanks of butane gas, and a couple of vats of chemicals. Some of those labs represent an investment of $5,000. Other ecstasy makers have been busted with equipment worth $500,000. The USD's director, Pieter Reijnders, estimates that the average lab puts out 50,000 tablets a week, at a cost of less than a guilder a pill, or about 50 U.S. cents. Since those tablets -- the size of an Advil, stamped with logos like Playboy bunnies, a lightning bolt, or the signs of the zodiac -- can sell for as much as $40 in a Manhattan disco, the profit potential in the traffic is enormous. Three years ago there were virtually no seizures of Dutch-made or -purchased ecstasy pills in the United States, but scores of those seizures were made in 1998, from Tampa, Florida, to Austin, Texas, to New York. Most had been bought by youthful American tourists out to finance their summer vacations by smuggling a few hundred tablets back home in their luggage.

During its brief existence, the USD has already taken down close to 20 labs. In what Reijnders laughingly calls "a typical Dutch move," the Ministry of Health, the center of the nation's pro-drug lobby, has complained to the Ministry of Justice about his unit's successes. The criminals were being pressured to put substandard, low-quality material into the tablets they were making, the Health Ministry said. Their answer was a highly controversial program to "test" users' ecstasy and amphetamine pills for impure substances, and then, if they prove clean, pass them back to their owners with a quasi-official endorsement of their use -- even though using them is technically illegal and no one yet knows whether they may cause long-term brain damage to their consumers. "Looking through the fingers again," sighs Dr. Karel Gunning of the Dutch Committee to Prevent Drug Abuse. But young Dutch rave partygoers are not paying much attention. A survey by the University of Leiden showed that 77 percent of partygoers never or rarely had their pills tested.

In any event, a new Dutch drug phenomenon, the Smart Shop, stands ready to help any young American tourist anxious to smuggle a supply of those ecstasy pills safely back home. More than 150 Smart Shops have popped up in the last two or three years, selling drug paraphernalia and hallucinogenic and psychedelic drugs like peyote and paddestoelen (Dutch mushrooms), which tiptoe up to the edge of legality. In most of them, like the one at 19 Oudehoogstraat, adjoining Amsterdam's red-light district, there is a cabinet selling what appear to be cans of Faberge shaving gel or deodorant sprays, Campbell's soup, or Heineken beer.

"Want to take 500 ecstasy tabs home, man?" smilingly asks the proprietor, picking up a can of Faberge Brut spray deodorant. He unscrews the base: no deodorant in there. It's hollow. "Easy," he says. "Put 'em in here. No one will ever find them."

"I would not be proud if we were to be seen by our neighbors as a narco-state," says the Public Health Ministry's Dr. Bunning. "We don't want people to come here just to gawk at the girls in the windows and get stoned. We have a culture and a history of which we are proud."

He sighs. "With drugs we are in the realm of theory. There is no simple solution to the drug problem. No one nation, not the U.S., not England, has the answer. But our solution in Holland is not ideal either."

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  • Larry Collins is the coauthor, with Dominique LaPierre, of numerous books including Is Paris Burning?, O Jerusalem!, and Freedom at Midnight.
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