Forbes magazine, June 17, 1996, pp. 114-116, 118 & 120

Just say maybe

  • Holland, one wellspring of American Puritanism, has become the Western World's most permissive society when it comes to marijuana and hashish. For a good cause?

    By Richard C. Morais

    AT THE SIBERIA cafe on Amsterdam's elegant Brouwersgracht canal, yellow tulips fill pretty vases, and customers quietly read newspapers while sipping mango- or caramel-flavored teas. Siberia is as civilized as a Viennese tearoom, and this is the Netherlands, a wellspring of American Puritanism. So it's a shock to discover that the house specialty is "Shiva Bhang," a sticky marijuana-and-herb ball eaten with yogurt.

    Siberia sells an estimated $1,000 of hash and marijuana a day. It's all done in the open, with the Dutch government collecting taxes on the receipts. The cafe's customers order from a drug "menu" - some 20 illustrative baggies of hashish and marijuana tacked to a board - openly displayed at the counter. From a felt-lined diamond merchant's steel case behind the counter, the house dealer sells two-gram bags of "Skunk" and "Haze" and "Thai" for around $15 each. A professorial type with gray hair buys a bag of "Afghani" hash, dipping his hand into a tin of complimentary rolling paper before settling on a sun-drenched stool for a chat and a smoke.

    For the past 20 years the Dutch have taken their own approach to the drug problems facing all developed nations. In 1976 they cracked down, hard, on dealers and users of hard drugs - heroin, opium, cocaine and the like. But they also decriminalized the sale and use of small quantities of so-called soft drugs - marijuana and hashish.

    It's fashionable in Europe right now to beat up on Holland for its lax policies on soft drugs. French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac threatened to close Holland's border with France because of them; the French parliament suspended the implementation of the European Union's Schengen agreement, which was to allow free movement of people across some borders. A top-ranking Bonn official followed up with a demand that the Dutch make a "fundamental change" in their drug policy.

    Last year the Dutch embassy in Washington had to defend itself from a scathing attack by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

    But have the critics checked out the statistics? According to estimates by the United Nations International Drug Control Programme, over 7% of the U.S. population "abuses" cannabis, compared with under 4% in Holland. Various EU studies indicate that Holland has 1.6 hard-drug addicts per 1,000 inhabitants. The number compares with 2.5 in France, 3 in Italy and 5.3 in Switzerland.

    The U.S. wasn't included in these studies, but others show that the U.S. is still by far the largest consumer of illicit drugs, despite the continuing multibillion-dollar war on drugs. The 119 million tons of cocaine seized in the U.S. in 1993 alone had a street value of some $15 billion. Some 10 million Americans smoke pot every month, and, unlike our President, most of them inhale.

    In decriminalizing the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana or hashish in 1976 and at the same time massively increasing sentences for hard-drug dealing, the Dutch authorities had a clear goal in mind. The authorities wanted to drive a wedge between the hard-drug and soft-drug communities, between casual users and big-time dealers. It wasn't the psychoactive properties of hashish, the authorities reasoned, but contact with the criminal subculture that leads to serious antisocial behavior.

    In this plan the authorities have succeeded brilliantly. A flurry of entrepreneurial soft-drug businesses, all taxed and part of the formal economy, have sprung up. The number of "coffee shops" in Amsterdam, for example, has grown to 450, each selling on average $150,000 worth of soft drugs per year. The flashy Bulldog Palace on Leidseplein, the Times Square of Amsterdam, serves food and drinks in a large outdoor cafe. Downstairs you can buy bags of "Haze" and "Skunk" cannabis, tequila-flavored lollipops and Bulldog T shirts at $17 a throw.

    But remember the policy: Drugs are okay, up to a point. The Dutch police instantly close a coffee shop if there is even a whiff of hard-drug dealing.

    With so much to lose, soft-drug entrepreneurs hire bouncers to eject anyone using or dealing in hard drugs. A.C.M. Jansen, an economist at the University of Amsterdam, has studied the coffee shop phenomenon. Jansen reports that in small coffee shops other customers will berate and chase away addicts looking for heroin.

    The Dutch cops, in other words, now have the soft-drug communities helping them contain and discipline the hard-drug users.

    The drug policy has created any number of opportunities for young entrepreneurs. Consider a man known simply as Wernard, for example. In the early 1970s Wernard was a coffee shop pioneer, selling drugs smuggled through Zurich's Kloten airport. In the mid-1980s he teamed up with Americans who brought to Holland seeds and know-how. Together they bred, cloned and developed new cannabis strains that would flourish in Holland. Today these potent strains of marijuana plants are called "Nederweed."

    "Nederweed" has spawned the multimillion-dollar Positronics, Wernard's "grow shop" department store. At the main counter salesmen advise home growers on whether they should buy the $106 digital hygrometers or the $65 mini-industrial ventilators or the $17 two-liter fertilizers. A home grower's starter indoor kit with lamp costs around $750, fits in a closet and will yield annually 2 kilos of high-grade pot during five harvests. Wernard even sells $20 "licenses" that tell the police, should they investigate, that the one-light Positronics "system" yields only enough pot for personal use.

    We ate lunch in De Cantina, Wernard's vegetarian coffee shop. The place was packed, not only with locals but also with Americans, Germans, Swiss and Italians. Wernard, 45, sells around $1,000 worth of pot a day from De Cantina and has installed a "test" bar - De Cantina is a kind of Starbuck's to the soft-drug trade. Marijuana pipes have been fitted with small vacuum cleaners normally used to clean the interior of a computer. When lit, the pipes blow a steady stream of cannabis smoke. Thus smokers can inhale and choose their preferred flavor.

    Wernard is coy about his profits, but they're sizable. He charges $1.50 a "taste"; an employee travels down a tightly packed line of tourists so the "taste" bowl of pot yields several grams worth of revenue.

    By decriminalizing marijuana and hashish and making the business visible, Holland not only collects a lot of taxes it would otherwise never see, but also keeps a lot of drug money inside the country. Ten years ago all the soft drugs consumed in Holland were smuggled in by organized crime rings from Morocco, Afghanistan and Turkey. But due to the innovations of Wernard and others, there are now over 35,000 home growers in Holland. The result: About 65% of the $500 million in soft drugs consumed today is Dutch homegrown. "The small growers' technical sophistication pushed out criminals," says Amsterdam University's Jansen.

    Holland's professional potheads sound like French vintners, waxing lyrical about how Scythians inhaled smoldering cannabis seeds; how spiced "bhang" milkshakes were drunk in honor of Kali, the Hindu goddess; how medieval Islamic Sufis developed the technique of rubbing the marijuana resin into hashish. A drug so entwined with the culture of man must be treated with respect.

    Lately the entrepreneurs are tapping the drug's rich history for modern commercial uses. Emperor Nero's surgeon, Dioscorides, named cannabis sativa and praised its healing properties. Today Wernard is developing "medi-weeds," working with doctors who prescribe pot to patients. Another entrepreneur is supplying 20 kilos of cannabis to a prestigious Berlin institute for AIDS research.

    Hemp, a strain of cannabis sativa that for centuries produced the tough fiber used in ropes and cloth, is an important by-product for these businessmen. Adam Dunn and Douglas Mignolla - American entrepreneurs in their late 20s - are now selling hemp fashions in Amsterdam. Their Hemp Works store features hemp lingerie, hemp jeans and cannabis shampoo. "Too much competition selling cannabis seeds," says Dunn.

    Amsterdam is a libertarian's fantasy. Every November it hosts a cannabis trade fair known as the "Cannabis Cup." From around the world thousands of "narco tourists" descend to taste the hottest new strain of pot, catch up on the latest technological developments and watch a hemp fashion show.

    A frequent winner of the Cannabis Cup is 47-year-old Ben Dronkers from Rotterdam. He owns cannabis businesses with revenues, he says, of $12 million, including the world's largest marijuana seed bank and 3,000 acres of hemp that he is turning into absorbant hemp chips for horse bedding at a factory in north Holland.

    Dronkers also knows how to sell to the narco tourists. During the Cannabis Cup he sells $117 tickets for his Cannabis Castle Tour. A bus takes tourists to an estate outside Amsterdam to see "grow rooms and greenhouses where award-winning strains were developed." The tour includes meals, live acts and "free samples."

    We paid $3.50 to visit Dronkers' Hash Marihuana Hemp Museum in downtown Amsterdam. On display are ancient Indian pipes, a 1944 New York Academy of Medicine study recommending the legalization of marijuana and a video showing how pot is grown. The place was full of well-off baby boomers from the U.S. and Europe.

    These narco tourists are a boon to Holland's anemic economy. They buy an estimated $180 million in cannabis a year directly from coffee shops - and spend a lot more staying in three- and four-star hotels, eating at expensive restaurants and visiting Holland's other tourist sites. Narco tourism may account for as much as 25% of Holland's $5.3 billion tourist income.

    It's this movement of the smokers back and forth across their borders that drives Germany and France bananas. They've got a point. In a frontierless Europe, Holland's approach often translates into cross-border drug deals. Coffee shops have sprung up in the border towns like Arnhem, Venlo and Maastricht. Holland has become the EU's largest producer of personality-altering Ecstasy tablets.

    But Holland is not - as detractors claim - a narco state. There is little corruption. While cannabis is decriminalized, it is still illegal, and the authorities will smash big-time organized crime dealers. In 1994 the police seized 524,000 pounds of cannabis, four times what was seized in finger-pointing France. They closed down 27 highly organized crime rings involved in drug trafficking. They netted 18,000 pounds of cocaine, 541 pounds of amphetamines, 473 pounds of heroin. It's a myth that Holland is all tolerance.

    Under intense pressure from its neighbors, Holland is promising a wave of crackdowns, including cutting the number of coffee shops in half. But it won't fundamentally change its hard drugs/soft drugs policy. Says Bernhard Scholten, the Amsterdam police's foreign affairs spokesman, "It's better to have all this in the open so we can keep an eye on it."

    [Sidebar:] "Reefer Madness"

    MARIJUANA might be legal in the U.S. today but for the zeal of Harry Anslinger. He was a prohibitionist who became head of the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1931. Anslinger had been a key figure behind America's alcohol prohibition. In his new position he went after marijuana.

    In the 1920s marijuana was used commonly in the U.S. for its medicinal properties. It was smoked recreationally by some musicians. By the late 1920s a rash of articles about "reefer madness" - many written by Anslinger himself - suddenly appeared in papers across the country. In 1927 the New York Times printed a sensational story about how a Mexican woman went insane eating cannabis leaves. At the hearings of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, Anslinger testified that a 21-year-old Floridian ax-murdered his entire family because he smoked pot. Anslinger declined to mention that authorities had tried to institutionalize the boy for insanity a year before he ever tried the drug.

    And so the myth of "killer reefer," the "assassin of youth," was established. The drug was outlawed in 1937. Some states decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s, but these policies were effectively overturned by the "zero tolerance" that became national policy in the 1980s. - R.C.M.

    [Sidebar:] A letter from the Tippelzone

    WHAT DO YOU DO with junkie prostitutes who parade before the best hotels picking up men? Holland's answer is to chase such ladies out of the downtown areas and into a Tippelzone, a specially designed streetwalkers' park.

    One such park is in an industrial suburb of Amsterdam. At 11 p.m. on the Theemsweg, it's bumper-to-bumper BMWs and jalopy pickups. The cars pass through steel gates and trawl around the fenced-in loop of a track. About 70 prostitutes stand under bus stop shelters dotted along the track every few meters. Four policemen watch from the side, keeping order. Pimps are banned; they watch from the other side of the steel gates.

    Business is brisk. An Alfa Romeo stops, and a woman in thigh-high boots and a thong under a lambskin jacket jumps into the car. The price for sex is $30. The car continues a few more meters, then branches off to a double row of steel boxes resembling horse stalls. The Alfa Romeo pulls into the stall; sex is performed in the car. When they finish, condoms are disposed of in handy stallside bins, and the car continues along the track out of the park. At 6 a.m., when the park closes, cleaners come to empty out the bins.

    "If the prostitutes step out of the park to do their business, they're arrested," says Inspector Annemarie Feye of the Amsterdam police. But the prostitutes can have a cup of coffee and cake at the park "house." They can also buy condoms and meet the state-provided doctor and social worker.

    This reporter talked to some of the women, but they were too stoned to be coherent. Or they could speak only Spanish. About 30 of the prostitutes were transsexuals from South America, halfway through their sex changes and working to pay for the expensive operations. Some of the she-males were petite and glamorous, if glassy-eyed from drugs. Others were fat, bursting out of their high heels, needing a shave. And still the cars stopped.

    Weird? Consider this: The $1.8 million Tippelzone was paid for by Dutch taxpayers. "It will look better when we plant the flowers," says Feye.

    Here's how the Dutch do their Tippelzone cost/ benefit analysis: Downtown Amsterdam is cleansed of streetwalkers; the action is contained, and police can easily monitor the scene; violent attacks on the girls are reduced; constant medical attention and education reduce the health risks. It costs about $46,000 a year to treat an AIDS patient, so if the Tippelzone saves 39 people from getting AIDS, the taxpayer has recouped the park's cost in one year. - R.C.M.

    [Photo caption, p. 114-115 (photos omitted here):] Rolling a joint in coffeeshop, Siberia Holland's grown-up approach to soft drugs is somewhere between the opium orgies of the 19th century and the failed "zero tolerance" of the 20th.

    [Photo caption, p. 115:] Wernard at the "taste" bar in his hashish department store Holland's home growers have quickly captured 65% of the $500 million soft-drug market.

    [Photo caption, p. 116:] Americans Douglas Mignolla and Adam Dunn with their hemp fashions Entrepreneurs are tapping cannabis sativa's rich history for new uses.

    [Photo caption, p. 118:] Ben Dronkers with hemp-harvesting equipment, part of his $20 million hashish empire Dronkers has been arrested 80 times, a necessity as he and Dutch authorities decide what an "acceptable" drug dealer is.

    [Photo caption, p. 120:] A prostitute working the tax-financed "streetwalkers' park" "Some problems you can solve. This one you can't."



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