June 2, 2008
Going Dutch

Jerome Richard

On the corner was a spruce little coffeehouse, probably selling drugs.

"Ah," he sighed at last. "The Dutch and their reasonable laws."

"Quite," Garmony said. "When it comes to being reasonable, they
rather go over the top."

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

There is something odd about the Dutch.  The country's name is The Netherlands, but even many natives call it Holland. Their capital is Amsterdam, but the government meets 35 miles away in The Hague.  There is a royal family and a royal palace in Amsterdam, but no king or queen has ever lived in that palace.  And their basic money unit is denominated guilder, but they call them florins.   Perhaps being comfortable with such anomalies is just another expression of the historic Dutch sense of tolerance.

Except for a spree of icon and stained glass window smashing that accompanied their switch to Calvinism during the Reformation, the Dutch have always welcomed all who came in peace, especially if they were escaping persecution elsewhere.  (Outside of their own country, their record is not so noble: they participated in the slave trade, were ruthless colonists, and descendants of Dutch settlers in South Africa created apartheid.)

Today, this tolerance extends to prostitutes and drug users.  The Red Light District (there are literally red lights above the doors of prostitutes' establishments) features available women on display in large windows.  There are also coffee houses that reek of marijuana.  The District is more tawdry than erotic and has proved to be one of the city's more popular tourist attractions.  If that were the extent of it, this social experiment would be something of a success.  Indeed, The Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of AIDS in Europe.  But drugs have proved to be a doorway to something besides perception.

The Dutch capacity for tolerance has been tested by a hippie drug culture. That's not the way it was supposed to be.  The counter-cultural movement of the Sixties was expressed in The Netherlands by a group called Provos (derived from "provoke").  At its height, the movement everywhere was an alliance between social and political rebels, those who were essentially passive and would eventually "drop out" to "do their own thing." and those who were active and determined to change society.  One of the Provo leaders declared Amsterdam "the magical centre of the universe," but the Provos relied more on politics than magic to bring about their vision of an ideal society.  They moved from street theater to electoral politics and in the 1970s and '80s gained seats in city government.

They dreamed of a utopia where the elimination of social restraints would lead to an equalitarian paradise.  To that end, shoplifting was excused as "proletarian shopping."  Since the mere appearance of uniformed police was thought to be repressive, the police force was reduced in numbers and uniforms nearly eliminated.  To this day, it is rare to see uniformed police in Amsterdam, though there are plainclothes police around.  In 1978, possession of small quantities (1 oz.) of marijuana and hashish was decriminalized, making official a tolerance policy that had existed for a decade.  Hard drugs continue to be illegal and sale or possession of them is prosecuted, yet their use is increasing as users tire of cannabis.

Far from crime disappearing, Amsterdam has the highest rate of "small" crimes--pickpockets, muggings, residential burglaries--in Europe.  At the big Waterlooplein flea market, a sign in four languages warns "Beware of pickpockets."  You seldom see a new bicycle because people are so resigned to having them stolen they won't waste money on the latest model.  In the 1960s, the city scattered public bicycles around town.  The idea was that anyone could pick up a bike, go to their destination and leave the bike there for someone else to use.  The program had to be abandoned because most of the bikes were stolen.  (Amsterdam has now revived the program, this time with locks that require an identification card to open.)

In 1999 a former drug addict named Chiel van Zelst published a book titled 100,000 Bike Valves in which he boasts of having stolen 50,000 bicycles to finance his habit.  To the consternation of many of his victims, the chief spokesman for the Amsterdam police department, Officer Klaas Wilting, accepted an autographed copy of the book.

Part of the problem stems from the young people attracted to Amsterdam for its drug tolerance policy.  They are drop-outs, not social activists.  Because they live much of their lives in a stupor, they cannot hold a job.  If their parents will not support them, they turn to petty crime.   Prostitutes at least work for their living and their occupation, once merely tolerated, was recently legalized.

The supplying of soft drugs is still largely unorganized.  A report in April, 1998 by a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission reported that "The market is very open, wholesalers and drug trading groups are really spread over the whole country, and the distribution network is so fine that the consumer can easily get hold of all sorts of drugs in even the smallest villages."  Prices are relatively low and "The only activity that threatens to disturb the market are rip-offs.  This occurs fairly regularly in Amsterdam as well as the towns in the east of the Netherlands."

However, the introduction of cocaine, crack, and heroin with their higher profit margins and habitual customers is changing the outlook.  The Commission concluded that "Organized crime in the Netherlands will become more and more a part of a sort of world-wide criminal system."

There are plenty of reasons to visit Amsterdam, including one of the great art museums of the world, the Rijksmuseum, with its collection of Dutch masters that features Rembrandt's Night Watch, and the nearby Van Gogh Museum, with the largest collection of his work in the world.  Anne Frank's House, where the family hid from the Nazis until they were betrayed, draws long lines of visitors.  And a ride on one of the canal boats is a relaxing introduction to the history and architecture of the city.  But also go there to see how, because of drugs, the Sixties ended.

Jerome Richard's website is: www.jeromerichard1.com.


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