Baltimore police check out Dutch drug policies Tolerance approach is eye-opener for 2 city officers

March 21, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands - For Peter Jenssen, buying cocaine is as simple as going to church.

Nearly every day the 40-year-old addict joins hundreds of long-time users in the basement of Paulist Church, where the pastor allows drug dealers to peddle their wares just one block from the downtown Holiday Inn.

The Dutch tolerance of drugs has been an eye-opener for two Baltimore police officers, David Childs and Sgt. Wesley Ormrod, who are visiting for a month studying different approaches to law enforcement.

Although they're here to pick up new law enforcement ideas, letting addicts and dealers ply their trade in a church isn't one they're going to propose for Baltimore.

The drug question is "for people much higher up than ourselves," said Sergeant Ormrod. "It might not even be a question for the police department. It might be a question for society to answer."

Rotterdam is more discreet about drugs and prostitution than the tourist haven of Amsterdam, 70 miles to the north. It is the busiest port in Europe, a gateway to the North Sea and the Atlantic, and has 700,000 residents, slightly more than Baltimore.

But compared to Baltimore where Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke once shocked the public by merely proposing to study decriminalization of drugs Rotterdam is a town where nearly anything goes.

Mr. Jenssen is a case in point. This former short-order cook has been a junkie for 22 years, graduating from heroin to crack cocaine, which he has built into a $400-a-day habit. He lives on Rotterdam streets, collects welfare and breaks into cars to support his addiction.

In many ways, he is just like thousands of Baltimore addicts homeless and hopelessly dependent. But he has much more freedom to satisfy his addiction.

Immediately after being released from jail after a conviction for breaking into cars, he went directly to the Paulist Church, a few blocks north of the central train station of this city that is still being rebuilt from the devastation of World War II.

Believing hard-core addicts are beyond help, the Rev. Hans Visser, a bulky man whose loud talk matches his size, allows about 800 heroin and cocaine addicts to buy drugs and in most cases use them at the church.

Mr. Jenssen purchased about $8 worth of crack cocaine and walked several blocks through the main downtown shopping strip, into the main post office building next to City Hall and police headquarters. There, just off the marble floor but within 10 feet of people retrieving mail from their boxes, he set up an elaborate procedure to smoke the cocaine.

"I'm a good junkie," said Mr. Jenssen. He knows the post office workers, who allow him to use drugs there as long as he doesn't bother anyone. "They come by and say hello. Sometimes they will say clean my stuff up, but they don't throw it away."

Mr. Visser used to run Platform Zero, an outdoor drug park outside the main train station in Rotterdam, where people were free to use heroin or cocaine. Police shut down the experiment after it got out of control.

"Your country likes prohibition," the pastor said of America. "That is the problem with the U.S. you like to moralize problems: Drugs are bad and drug users are sinners."

He admitted that the open drug area was a bad idea because it lacked control and attracted a slew of visitors looking to experiment. Inside his walls, he said, he can regulate the vTC distribution to people who he believes are beyond help. And he gives some of them jobs, such as selling the church newspaper, to keep them away from crime.

"I want to repair the image of drug users," Mr. Visser said. "People will say, 'Good, they are busy working.' We want to integrate his drug use into his life without criminality."

The police decision not to raid the church goes to the heart of their law enforcement policy: setting priorities.

"I don't believe in hunting the users," said Rotterdam Police Chief Bob Hessing. "I believe in fighting organized crime and drug traffickers. The problem is not the existence of drugs. The problem is the reason people are addicted to drugs in the first place."

The policy extends to beat officers such as Sgt. Jan Olonamasen, who keeps a list of 30 drug houses on the city's west side. Some are targets for raids because of complaints from neighbors; at others, officers simply will knock on the front door and talk to the occupants inside.

Sergeant Olonamasen does the latter with Ray Mahabier, who lives on Busken Heutstraat, a west-side street well known to city officials because of the influx of immigrants from Suriname and Moracco.

Mr. Mahabier, a 36-year-old from Suriname who has been pumping heroin into his veins for 14 years, let the officers inside. Like many drug users in Baltimore, he lives off welfare and has no plans to stop his habit. But he talks to the sergeant.

"I have to cooperate with police," he said, confident that the law treats him as a victim and not a criminal suspect. "Anytime they want, they can come inside. I have nothing to hide. I'm a user."

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