Changing views on drugs (and sex) in Amsterdam

Article written February-April 1997 - Not updated since! Copyright Kees Kaldenbach



Changing views on drugs (and sex) in Amsterdam


Dog turds and hard drugs in Amsterdam


In Quentin Tarantino's movie 'Pulp Fiction' a story is told by one of the actors about the mind-blowing lack of authority and clout of Amsterdam cops. According to this movie scene Amsterdam cops are not permitted to arrest a driver which is stopped for a traffic violation when these cops inadvertedly find drugs in the boot of a car. The script of Pulp Fiction was written some years ago in Amsterdam, which indeed is an interesting hub of free thougths and rather free practice on drugs (and sex). But Amsterdam is by no means the dangerous low life Sodom and Gomorrah it is made out to be at times. I have lived happily and safely in Amsterdam for the last 20 years and wish to share with you some of the current events concerning drugs in this area. For the sake of clarification I will add some snippets of history for those who have inadvertedly missed Dutch History 101.

Perceived problem #1: Dog turds

If you ask inhabitants of Amsterdam about their society's paramount problem, their answer may well be the unsightly amount of dog turds which is spread richly each & every day across the otherwise clean, well organized and well preserved city streets and parks of Amsterdam.

(Aside: Amsterdam is the capital of The Netherlands, in which the Dutch people speak the Dutch language - not as you might think 'Deutsch' which is the proper German language word for 'German'. To make matters even cloudier - from the viewpoint of the USA - the Pennsylvania 'Dutch' should actually be called Pennsylvania 'Deutsch'.)

But we were talking dog turds. Patties of dog shit are indeed widely scattered on sidewalks and in parks as dog owners think it is up to their personal views to decide where and when their dog should poop. Either that or their liberated dogs decide independently for themselves where to do what they must do. Theoretically - by law - everybody should scoop up after their dog. But these rules are not enforced and fines are not given as policemen and politicians think they have better things to do. If this law were enforced the first reaction for the law officers would be a threefold cheer from me but also a sneer from the dog owners.


Perceived problem #2: Small time crime

Drugs are indeed NOT a daily worry for the burghers of Amsterdam, in fact it is more or less a non-item. But drugs related small time crime is a worry. An appreciable number of dope addicts do cause much anger and frustration by smashing car windows and breaking into homes looking for the steady daily flow of hard cash they need for the purchase of heroin and other hard drugs. Or they find creative sources of income like holding up a tobacconist's store by force. Every day hundreds of bycicles, the national mode of transportation, are stolen and resold for about US $ 15,- in the street to a bike-less people who are in dire bike need (their third or fourth bike just having been stolen).


Perceived problem #3: 'Foreigners'

Up to the early nineteen fifties the vast majority of the Dutch populace were of snow white nordic stock - Dutchmen had hardly actually lived with foreigners of a different skin color. Press or TV stories about race discrimination in the Deep South of the USA and in South Africa were met with morally superior howls of indignation. Then around 1960 labourers from Spain and Italy and Turkey and Morocco were hired by companies such as the steel mills. They were ready to do the hard and dirty jobs that Dutch nationals did not really go for. After some years of labour the Italians and Spaniards usually went home but the Turks and Maroccans stayed and were joined by their own families. People from the former colonies of Surinam (Dutch Guyana, South America) and the Dutch Indies (Indonesia) came here during various times in the 20th C. for other reasons. Their liaisons with the Dutch allowed them to travel and in numbers they went to this chilly and wet part of the world in order to increase their chances to build a prosperous life.

These days some 10 to 15% of the inhabitants of Holland are from foreign birth. As in France where Le Pen rakes up racist sentiments a part of the Dutch population current worries about these `foreigners' (especially those Moroccan, Turkish and Surinamese inhabitants who have converged in certain run down sections of towns.)

No single ethnic group however forms a social menace. Except maybe the criminal hard core of second-generation Turkish and Maroccan youngsters. These thugs succeed in filling prison cells in quite interesting percentages. Their pious and law abiding islamic parents, often originating from rural areas of Turkey and Morocco have often adhered to their Turkish or Arabic mother tongues and cultural ways. The adult men often meet in Mosques and have few other outside contacts. Many of these Turkish and Moroccan parents have not succeeded in becoming part of the fabric of Dutch society. Because of their lack of fluency in Dutch language and lack of adaptation to local customs and the fabric of Dutch society their kids often do not succeed in high school. Apart from the vast law abiding majority of adult Turks and Maroccans there is only a small section of Maroccans, Turks and Kurdish Turks who are activily smuggling large amounts of hard drugs. And pimp. And in some areas there are street gangs made up of Moroccan youths.

Hardly a problem: soft drugs - hard drugs

From the perspective of Big Town or Small Town USA, there is a strange thing missing from this list of currently perceived social problems. Drugs and prostitution are indeed not seen as a major issue in Dutch society. Prostitution is well nigh legalized. Soft drugs are indeed consumed by an appreciable group of youngsters.

Dutch society (law and law enforcement) now distinguishes between soft drugs (i.e. hashish, marihuana, which are considered socially acceptable and although posession is illegal small amounts are tolerated) and hard drugs (mostly heroin or crack, which are seen to be the unglamorous dead end for losers).

Using soft drug or posessing small amounts of soft drugs is no problem. Up to the month of April 1997 a citizen with less than 20 grams of soft drugs in the pocket would NOT be persecuted, but this amount has now been lowered to 5 grams. Probably as a result of pressure from France and the German Federal (central) government.


Harmful hard drugs?

There is however a serious but rarely effective enforcement policy on hard drugs. But in this hard nosed 'war on hard drugs' one exception is made: Dirty heroin needles are replaced quietly and for free by new ones - no names or questions asked - in order to stop the spread if HIV and AIDS.

Indeed only a small percentage of these hard drugs are actually caught during transportation. But even the ban on hard drugs is under discussion. A number of police chiefs of the major towns have openly declared that the 'war on hard drugs' is unwinnable. Recently an open letter was published in newspapers by a group of 43 prominent Dutch artists and performers, proclaiming that 'hard drugs' are not necessarily harmful. Many hard drug users -they claim- do not end up in the gutter of society. Instead many users continue to function as productive members of society, not stealing the necessary funds to procure drugs but earning it in their regular jobs.

This viewpoint is corroborated by a friend of mine from Paris, France has recently told me that in the professional Paris circles (of lawyers, university professors, architects, doctors etc.) an enormous amount of hard drugs is consumed quietly without anybody openly interfering. The the French government chooses not to tackle this domestic situation.

To my mind the present day 'war on drugs' creates a situation comparable to the USA Prohibition which caused mayhem in the nineteen-thirties. The present day USA 'war on drugs' is its later day cousin. This beastly policy will endure as long as the current prohibition rules lasts. I do think every conceivable drug should be available at low prices in government controlled drug stores, and a massive publicity campaign should discourage drug use. People cannot be stopped in taking in mind altering substances. But they can be talked into intelligent use of drugs if the quality of their life is decent enough.

Under foreign pressure the Dutch minister of Defence has suddenly started a new policy of combatting drug use in the military (Holland currently having a professional military, no draftees). A group of these professional soldiers was sacked as a loud sign that a new wind blows in the Army. This is a new turn of events for soft and hard drugs have been quietly tolerated in army circles for many decades. It is funny that no mention is made of the effects of the major amounts of alcohol which is consumed on and off hours in quite manly amounts. Doesn't alcohol stupor and hangover infringe on battle readiness?

XTC, mushrooms, cocaine

A public debate is going on in Holland about the category some other new fangled drugs should be placed. For instance the friday and saturday night special drug XTC (extasy), and the highbrow drug cocaine, which replaces coffee as an substance which will give you an up feeling. Many of these drugs are secretly manufactured in Holland. The dutch government does not appreciate this happening ans has asked other countries to stop delivering the chemical compounds necessary for the production process.

Lately mind altering mushrooms have become popular. One will not easily find crime apparently perpatrated by users of these latter groups of drugs. The users converge in discos and all night dance rave fastivals and go mellowly about dancing their way in a light headed haze, focusing on their all-embracing love-this music-love-thy-neighbor sensation. These chemically manufactured pills cost about US $ 15,- to 30,- a pop which makes it comparatively as costly as a night out, drinking beer or wine. The Dutch prime minister has however just indicated that the government frowns upon these new drugs and will increase police enforcement. The outcome is far from clear. Illegal chemical labs do dump their highly toxic liquid waste in barrels, preferrably in deserted nature parks.

Mind altering mushrooms are still legal by the letter of Dutch law when sold in a fresh natural state (but this is now being contested too). Processed mushrooms (dried, powdered, otherwise changed products) which still retain their mind altering effects are already outlawed. The Ministry which deals with foodstuffs (our local FDA) has announced to have no problems at all with these mushrooms whether processed or not. The Ministry of Justice however sees fit to alter these rulings and move these mushrooms to the lump group of 'hard drugs'. These things are in flux.

Controlled substances

The substances which we now call drugs played no major part in the history of Dutch society. Athough the main question is how one defines drugs. Alcohol, this potent friend of ours, has always been socially acceptable. Social drinking and boozing was and is still wide spread and the social cost is apparent in some segments of the population. Although the amounts of hard liquor consumed by the working class has steadilty decreased since the early 1900's. In the 17th C. tobacco was welcomed without much ado and smoke was inhaled everywhere. In the 18th C. the emergence of coffee presented quite a puzzling experience to the Dutch burgomasters as coffee users did not drink alcohol until merry or stupefied late at night, but instead had their coffee during daytime hours and talked politics in their coffee houses. For some years there indeed was a War on Coffee going on until this substance was legalized and nicely taxed. The 19th C. presented opium to those with (medical) access and absinth, an addictive drink, to the poorer masses. Neither were seen as medical or social menaces.

In the early nineteen-sixties, Amsterdam police was suddenly confronted with a new substances: hashish and marihuana (which are the resin and the leaf of the cannabis sativa plant) and heroin, a resin from the poppy plant which was either burnt on silver foil and then sniffed in or injected intravenously. This was a whole new ball game.

Liberalized soft drugs

In the nineteen sixties, after some years of active oppossition, the police - and other powers that be - decided there were other areas of crime more worthy of their attention. Immediately an era of unprecedented drug liberty started. Weekly price rates of such soft drugs as Red Libanon and Home grown Dutch Mahiruana varieties on the current open market were broadcast in a national radio programme from about1967 onwards anchorman Koos Zwart, himself the son of a government minister.

In the nineteen seventies the actual selling point of joints and reefers and hashish and mahiruana was located in so called 'coffee houses'. These provided the low key commercial setting in many Dutch towns. Music by Carole King, Velvet Underground and The Doors was played all day long and coffee and spice tea were served to a mellow crowd of long haired youngsters who contemplated furthering the counter revolution. The girls which hung around these coffee houses wore round spectacles and flowery dresses and walked about in a fragrance of musk. Coffee houses quietly proliferated as selling points for soft drugs. Actually the police rather preferred these coffee houses over which some control was possible over the nasty alternative of the shady street dealer. These days coffe houses advertise their wares by showing a logo of a cannabis sativa plant. Mail order firms (the addresses of which I do not know) sell complete 'grow your cannabis at home' packages which include seeds and special electric grow lights for indoor bumber crops. The present day Dutch national variety of home grown Mahiruana is exceedingly strong in its effects. Everybody is happy.

Thus Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands has for some 20 or 30 years become (as seen by some) a seedy Sodom and Gomorrah of the international drugs scene. But is it really?

As stated before, many Dutch Chiefs of Police now believe that soft should be legalized and sold freely and that hard drugs should be distributed in a controlled and medically sound way. A wide spread information campain should spread awareness that there are hotter things on this planet that to shoot a needle up ons's arm. But nobody can keep fellow man from experiencing a mind altering effect.

Across the border governments such as the French government go beserk at hearing of such day dreams and insist upon continuing the unwinnable War on Drugs. The French authorities insist that Holland is the European Drug Supermarket. French yongsters drive down from Lille to Rotterdam at weekends to score drugs. To the chagrin of Rotterdam neighborhood vigilante groups which experience narcotics traffic and street fights over deliveries. Dutch ministers retort that most drugs transports only arrive in Holland after being transported from Meditarranean countries by way of road or sea.

The Dutch model of legalizing soft drugs and turning a blind eye to heroin users (by freely interchanching any dirty needle for a new one in order to stop Aids from spreading) has worked. Other European countries have now followed suit: Switserland and even the German federal countries of Rhineland-Westfalia and Schleswig-Holstein. The Dutch model slowly spreads. For better or worse.


You have now managed to read about 50%. Congratulations! For the rest of this riveting article click Amsterdam Sex and Drugs Part 2


Update 22 feb. 2013