High times: drugs in Rotterdam Is Baltimore moving toward Dutch-style tolerance of drugs?

March 24, 1996|By Peter Hermann

First, Baltimore prosecutors doubled the amount of heroin and cocaine it takes to be charged with drug distribution. Then the police commissioner ordered his officers to go after gun-toting criminals rather than street addicts holding small amounts of drugs.

Now, two city police officers have just returned from a fact finding trip to the Netherlands, where they observed customers smoking marijuana in "coffee houses" and officers have wide latitude in making drug arrests.

About a decade has passed since Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called drug abuse a medical issue and called for a national debate on drug decriminalization. The question that looms now is whether Baltimore is quietly moving toward a drug policy adapted from the Dutch model.

Mr. Schmoke, who waged a successful battle to get a needle exchange program in Baltimore, said the Netherlands' approach drug treatment and policing "works better then what we are doing." But corner drug shops are not part of Baltimore's future, he maintained.

"I think we're moving toward a balanced and more effective approach," the mayor said, adding: "I think that we put more officers on the street and we put a wide ranging network of treatment, and that's going to reduce the number of addicts and the crime in this city."

In the Netherlands, all drug use is illegal, but police tolerate limited use of marijuana and hashish and do not target the users of other drugs. Police in the Netherlands call drug users their "patients," a startling departure from the situation in the United States.

In Rotterdam, the police do not interfere with the pastor who allows some 800 addicts to inject themselves with heroin in the basement of his church and drug houses are allowed to operate as long as the neighbors don't complain.

Rotterman police have issued licenses to some 1,500 "coffee houses" where marijuana and hashish are openly sold across counter tops and from carry-out windows. The authorities say people should be given an opportunity to experiment with "soft drugs" so they will stay away from cocaine and heroin, which are highly addictive.

"We believe that cannabis presents a low risk to the user," said Jelle Zeilstra, a counselor at Bouman House, one of the largest drug treatment centers in Rotterdam. "You can have fun with it.

"Young people in our country like to experiment," Mr. Bouman said. "You experiment by crossing a border. Some people are bungee divers. Others driver motorcycles fast. Some people do it with drugs."

Government statistics show that out of a population of 15.2 million, 700,000 people have either tried or are regular users of marijuana or hashish. Overall, officials claim the country has 21,000 drug addicts; Baltimore alone estimates it has 50,000.

Dutch statistics compiled in 1990 show a steady increase in marijuana use among school children above the age of 12, and an aging heroin population, indicating to drug experts that heroin use is on the decline.

Dutch cities have lower crime rates compared to many U.S. cities, but there is growing concern among residents and in Parliament that the lenient drug enforcement should be tightened.

Dutch police concentrate on high-level traffickers Rotterdam has problem with organized crime organizations battling over large drug shipments that slip the port destined for other countries. The city has been labeled the "drug gateway" of Europe.

Rotterdam officials also are worried about the Dutch fleeing some troubled neighborhoods, leaving behind poor Moroccan and Suriname immigrants.

In one such neighborhood, Spangen, residents got so fed up with the French using a nearby superhighway to drive in for drugs that they staged weekly protests in which they barricaded the road and turned back visitors.

Opponents of Baltimore's drug strategy say getting tough on all criminals is the only way the city will emerge from its crime-ridden state.

Marshall M. Meyer, past chairman of the now-defunct governor's Executive Advisory Council, said the city's police particularly Mr. Frazier's decision to de-emphasize petty drug arrests "obviously borders on decriminalization" of drugs.

"There has got to be a better way of stopping guns then going after guns and ignoring other crimes," said Mr. Meyer, whose group advised former Gov. William Donald Schaefer and in 1988 condemned the Netherlands for its liberal drug policies.

City Councilman Martin O'Malley, D-3rd, said that it is a "terrible tragedy that so many [drug users] are behind bars, but legalizing the stuff and looking the other way doesn't make residents feel any safer and attract people back to a shrinking city."

Jean-Paul Grund, a Rotterdam native who is the deputy director of the Lindesmith Center in New York, which promotes alternative ways of dealing with drug use, said police in many big U.S. cities don't pay much attention to marijuana use a position similar to their Dutch counterparts.

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