The Dutch Go To Pot

Paul van Hoorn, 71, suffers from chronic glaucoma. His wife, Jo, 70, has painful arthritis. So every few days, the two septuagenarians shuffle to their local "coffee shop," ever watchful for robbers, to buy a little marijuana. Last week Dutch authorities decided that the van Hoorns, among many others, should change their ways--by going to their local pharmacy. Effective immediately, the government will begin dealing in Nederwiet, or Netherweed--cannabis, by another name, grown in state-sanctioned greenhouses and sold by prescription with official government approval.

That may not be such a stretch in a country famous for its cutting-edge life-style, where cafes legally sell pot along with cappuccino. Still, not so long ago the Netherlands might have faced condemnation, not only from Washington but across Europe. This time, though, while American anti-drug crusaders shake their heads in angry consternation, many Europeans are thinking of following suit. Britain, Belgium and Luxembourg are preparing to emulate the Netherlands in decriminalizing marijuana possession for personal consumption--and they will be watching the prescription experiment closely. Nor is this the most controversial of Europe's new approaches to drugs. In Spain last week, 60 heroin junkies began a pilot program in which for the next nine months, they will receive twice-daily injections of heroin, supervised by a state hospital. Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland have already launched similar programs. It's a far cry from the era when President Ronald Reagan found willing partners for his "get tough" policies. When it comes to the problems of drugs and addiction, says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, the United States these days is an "outlier," increasingly far from the European mainstream.

Actually, the Netherlands' new policy isn't as out-there as it might seem at first --glance. Official pot will be sold only for the alleviation of acute pain in the treatment of such diseases as cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis, as well as a handful of unusual ailments like Tourette's syndrome. No more than 15,000 patients are expected to receive the drug in the first year. Nonetheless, it's significant that nations that used to tailor their drug policies to U.S. concerns are today far less inclined to do so. Europeans are increasingly put off by what they see to be America's extremism--the stridency of the Bush administration's "zero tolerance" crime and anti-drug campaigns, its growing conservatism on social and cultural issues, its unilateralism in Iraq and go-it-alone unwillingness to abide by treaties and international norms held dear by Europeans, from environmental accords to agreements on international criminal justice. "People are saying, you can't hold us to some treaties and choose the ones you do and don't want to adhere to," says Eugene Oscapella, a lawyer in Ottawa who specializes in international drug issues. "There's a lot of skepticism about America," he adds, and it's spilling into other realms, including drug policies.

The zealous U.S. attorney general, John Ashcroft, embodies this ambivalence. Many Europeans see him as nothing short of a right-wing Jesus freak, a caricature of Europe's worst fears of the Ugly American. His Justice Department has overseen vigorous (some would say absurd) prosecutions of cases that mystify people on the other side of the Atlantic. Dozens of vendors of water pipes, sometimes used to smoke marijuana, have been indicted by the Justice Department, for example, even when no actual drugs are involved. The comedian and actor Tommy Chong--of Cheech & Chong fame--faces up to three years in prison for allowing his name to be used to sell "Chong's Bongs" online. Authorities have raided hospices for the sick and the dying in several California cities, even though California is one of 10 states, representing 20 percent of the nation's population, to have passed medical-marijuana initiatives--only to have them overturned by conservative judges. Says Oscapella: "It really is a crusade, pointing at drugs as the devil."

Not long ago, countries such as France could be counted on to follow the conservative U.S. line on drugs. No more. Though widely regarded in Europe as a hard-liner, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy recently helped find a site for a music festival attended by some 40,000 ravers. (He even promised funds for cleanup and damages, if needed.) By contrast, U.S. Justice Department attorneys have been using the newly enacted Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act--popularly known as "the Rave Act"--to crack down on institutions where drugs are consumed. Critics say that nightclubs, dance halls, sports arenas and possibly even hotels can be targeted under the legislation, which Europeans consider to be draconian and a potential threat to individual civil rights.

Nor is it just Europe that's scorning U.S. policies. Even neighboring Canada, traditionally far more in tune with America than Europe, is considering new laws that would decriminalize possession of as much as 15 grams of cannabis. Everyone from the U.S. drug czar, John Walters, to President George W. Bush himself has weighed in, threatening Canada with tighter border restrictions and possible trade penalties if its Parliament approves the measures. Yet that might only be the beginning of Canada's perfidy, at least as Washington sees it. Like the Netherlands, Ottawa has also begun a medical-marijuana program; like Spain and Germany, it's starting up a government-funded project to supervise injections for hard-drug addicts in Vancouver.

Should all this come to pass, whether in Canada or Europe, it will be a clear sign that key elements of America's once globally influential "drug war" are going up in smoke. Growing numbers of Europeans would say it's about time. Regardless of the merits, they will chalk it up as yet another defeat for Arrogant America.