`Anything goes' is going

Dutch retreat from permissiveness in embrace of values

January 13, 2008|By Geraldine Baum | Geraldine Baum,Los Angeles Times

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- The vacation sort of just flew by.

After dropping their packs at a hostel, Ryan Ainsworth and his buddy Richie Bendelow found a shop selling 500 herbal potions that promised to make them high and happy in 500 ways. But the young British tourists went right for the hallucinogenic mushrooms, packaged in clear plastic containers just like the ordinary ones at the greengrocer back home.

After forking over $24, they made their way to the lush Vondelpark and between them gobbled up the entire box.

The next day, as they were leaving a popular coffeehouse where they'd bought half a gram of marijuana, they had little to say about the afternoon in the park. "Hey, it's holiday in Holland," said Ainsworth, a 22-year-old kayak instructor. "Anything goes."

But it may be last call for drugs, sex and live-and-let-live in the Netherlands, one of the most famously broad-minded countries in the world.

Prostitution, abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and magic mushrooms have long been legal here, and soft drugs such as marijuana are technically illegal but are sold with official sanction in small amounts in "coffeehouses." In recent years, however, uneasiness over an influx of Muslim and black immigrants as well as a lifestyle that many believe has gone too far have shifted the Dutch mood away from tolerance and infinite permissiveness.

In 2006, parliament stopped coffeehouses from selling alcohol if they sell marijuana; now legislators are negotiating to have them located at least 250 yards from schools. This year, a ban on the sale of hallucinogenic mushrooms goes into effect.

"I've been in this business 15 years, and we have never felt so much pressure," said Olaf Van Tulder, manager of the Green House, part of a chain of popular coffeehouses.

Business is good, sure, but the daily struggle with a new drug-policing unit has Van Tulder feeling under siege. "Even if there's just a motorbike double-parked out front, they'll shut us down," he says.

Like most natives, Van Tulder, 35, doesn't use marijuana often, but he is concerned that conservative politics will kill Dutch culture: "Listen, these people want to put their religion in society, and I think Amsterdam is dying because of it. It's nice to escape a little from reality."

Joel Voordewind grew up in this city, reveling in the punk music scene and playing drums in a band. But he never felt comfortable with Amsterdam's drug use and prostitution and as a kid avoided its red-light district "because you'd get in trouble there."

Now this tall, boyish-looking son of an evangelical pastor is 42 and a member of parliament. His Christian Union Party, which bases much of its policy on biblical doctrine, is trying to remake a government that in his estimation has been morally adrift. Although his party controls only two of 16 ministries, it aligned with liberals to fight for refugees, poor families and the environment while also condemning homosexuality, euthanasia, abortion and youthful experimentation "with everything."

"The people are fed up with the lazy attitude of government," he said.

Although tolerance and diversity have long been a matter of national pride, a series of shocking events has made the Dutch more open to "a firm government with outspoken norms and values," he said.

The killings of maverick populist politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh two years later, both of whom fanned fears of Islamic extremism, have traumatized this predominantly white, Christian country.

The outward-looking Dutch welcomed the newcomers - and their mosques and Islamic schools - but have grown less tolerant toward those who don't share their brand of tolerance. And they're also asking themselves why they're inviting tourists to get stoned in their parks and allowing graceful neighborhoods to fill up with sex clubs and massage parlors.

Last month, Amsterdam's mayor and City Council unveiled a plan to squeeze out brothels and escort services by forcing their owners to apply for permits and by raising the minimum age of prostitutes to 21 from 18. The city is also spending $37 million to buy out a landlord who owns a quarter of the city's buildings where nearly naked women pose behind display "windows," red lights flashing over their heads.

If the City Council gets its way, windows featuring women for sale will give way to windows featuring women's clothes for sale, and historic buildings will be restored to attract upmarket hotels and restaurants, with the remaining brothels clustered on just a few streets.

Voordewind would like to see his native city's red-light district radically changed. He recently proposed turning it into an artists' colony like Paris' Montmartre.

"The district is now a tourist attraction not because of the nice buildings, but because of the windows," he said. "It's very a sad situation. ... I want it completely changed."

Geraldine Baum writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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