Do We Want a High Society?

Do We Want a High Society?
Posted by FoM on June 11, 2000 at 17:02:31 PT
By Timothy Appleby, Amsterdam
Source: Globe & Mail
More and more Canadian officials think a little marijuana may not be such a bad thing. Look at the Dutch: they've embraced it for nearly 25 years, without turning into a land of blissed out dope fiends.Amid clouds of powerful marijuana smoke and blaring techno music, an exuberant parade of a couple thousand dishevelled, thoroughly stoned drug lovers inched through the city centre on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Tourists couldn't help but gawk. Locals, however, barely raised an eyebrow. "They're enjoying themselves, they're not causing any trouble," a well-dressed hotel proprietor shrugged as the raucous procession -- an annual demonstration to support legalizing all drugs -- shuffled peacefully past.Leading the way were two police officers, sipping pop as they chatted with the revellers.Rubbing shoulders with a horde of scruffy drug users may not be exactly what Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino had in mind last week when he told The Globe and Mail: "I don't think every case involving a minute amount of marijuana needs to go through the criminal-justice system."Nor does Chief Fantino seem enamoured of the Dutch practice of turning a blind eye to casual cannabis use, still technically illegal in the Netherlands. He has said that as long as Canada's marijuana laws are in place, they should be enforced.But where Dutch authorities would agree with Chief Fantino -- rarely accused of mollycoddling criminals during his 31-year career -- is on the contention that the pursuit and prosecution of pot smokers is a waste of police resources.Better to issue a ticket or put chronic smokers through a court-ordered treatment program, the police chief suggests.While Ontario Premier Mike Harris said on Wednesday that he opposes such a move, Chief Fantino is not alone. Weary of the seemingly endless U.S.-led war on drugs, many Western countries are questioning the need for strict enforcement.Such doubts are not new in Canada. It was in 1973 that the LeDain Commission on illicit drugs urged that criminal sanctions for drug users (as opposed to dealers) be gradually withdrawn.Later, the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Council of Churches supported cannabis decriminalization -- not to be confused with legalization. Decriminalization would mean that although the law would stay on the books, it would not saddle offenders with a criminal record, similar to a minor traffic infraction.At street level, many Canadian police reached the same conclusion long ago. Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, fingerprinting is no longer mandatory for users found with less than 30 grams of the drugs. And in many jurisdictions, a common police response upon discovering a couple of marijuana joints is to simply toss them away.Data from 1998, nonetheless, show that the number of cannabis charges in Canada rose 6 per cent compared with 1997, even as crime overall plunged 17 per cent.Hence the interest in the Dutch policy, which for decades has distinguished soft drugs from hard ones, and users from dealers and exporters.At the same time, the Amsterdam parade's colourful blend of uniformed officers and joint-puffing party animals underlines the peculiar no man's land created when cannabis is decriminalized.Most drugs are as illegal in the Netherlands as they are everywhere else. But Dutch laws against personal use are rarely enforced, whether it be for cannabis, ecstasy, a cap of heroin or a rock of crack cocaine.Instead, under guidelines that stress harm reduction rather than penalization, the drugs simply get confiscated.Like plenty of other Europeans, the Dutch are aghast at the U.S. war on drugs, which has helped swell the U.S. prison population tenfold in the past 20 years.Yet emulating the Dutch experiment presents its own difficulties.For one thing, Canada would find that decriminalizing cannabis isn't popular with the neighbours.Among other members of the borderless European Community, particularly France and Britain (whose drug-use rates are Europe's highest), Dutch drug policy still stirs considerable unease. Legions of foreign "narco-tourists" stream in annually to the Netherlands, where drugs of all kinds are widely available. Holland is also a significant exporter of hydroponic marijuana and synthetic drugs.Because of pressure from abroad, the Dutch have tightened narcotics regulations in the past couple of years. For example, the flood of Dutch-made ecstasy pills at home and abroad led in 1997 to the creation of the Synthetic Drug Unit, which targets manufacturers and exporters.It is one thing to turn a blind eye, in the Dutch tradition of gedoogbeleid, meaning institutional discretion. But actually legalizing cannabis -- which would show blatant disregard of international statutes that the Netherlands has signed -- would be radically different."We'd have a lot of problems," said Klars Wiltink, an Amsterdam police spokesman. "Right now, legalization is not possible."In the same way, were Canada to decriminalize cannabis, the first sound it would probably hear would be an angry yell of protest from Washington, already irate over Canada's annual, multitonne export of high-grade marijuana.There is also the thorny question of supplying the users. Where should the drugs come from?In the Netherlands, no one gets busted for growing half a dozen marijuana plants, but large-scale producers are another matter.And the source of cannabis for the wide-open, 1,000-plus marijuana-selling coffee shops and bars is murky. An outlet is supposed to have no more than 500 grams on the premises at any given time, and that law gets enforced.For many foreign visitors, the widespread tolerance for cannabis and easy availability of hard drugs can leave the impression of a society awash in drugs.But most of the Netherlands' 16 million citizens don't use any illicit drugs at all. As with the ubiquitous sex shops, also a tourist favourite, the novelty wore off long ago."In general, we consider our policy [decriminalization] a success, though that doesn't mean there are no problems," said Roel Verssemauers, deputy manager of prevention at the respected, government-funded Jellinek drug agency, which conducts research, treatment and education campaigns.Heroin consumption among young people, for instance, is barely on the radar, and the average age of Dutch junkies, widely regarded by young people as losers, is now close to 40.However, there is one drug, ecstasy, that has blurred the traditional distinction between hard and soft drugs.Although it is non-addictive, ecstasy is classified as a hard drug in the Netherlands, along with heroin and cocaine. For a variety of reasons, principally concern about declining quality, domestic use of ecstasy has dropped by perhaps half since its 1996 peak.The organic stimulants sold by the relatively recent, colourful "smart shops" is another grey area. Most are deemed legal because the products are "natural," but a current case involving the Conscious Dreams shop is being closely watched.The store was busted for selling psylocybin mushrooms, a popular hallucinogen, because the product was dried. The drying process constituted a form of manufacture, police concluded."It's still quite unclear for the authorities what to do with the smart shops," Mr. Verssemauers said.Data on drug usage among the Dutch population are also mixed.Statistics from a study last year by the European Union's drug-monitoring centre in Lisbon show that a little more than 5 per cent of the teenaged and adult Dutch population had used cannabis in the previous year, slightly higher than the continent-wide average of about 4 per cent.Across Canada, the figure in the mid-1990s was 7.4 per cent, according to Statistics Canada, while in the United States, 9 per cent used cannabis in 1997.Among Dutch teenagers, on the other hand, drug use is generally a bit higher than in most European countries. Only their Irish and British peers consume more.But that doesn't mean most Dutch high-school students arrive in class stoned.In Amsterdam, where drug use tends to be higher than in the rest of the country, a recent survey of 17-year-olds found that 19 per cent admitted to smoking pot in the previous month, Mr. Verssemauers said.But only 4 per cent of the sample said they smoked every day, while just 3 per cent had used ecstasy in the previous month -- the same figure as for cocaine -- and heroin use was far below that level.Alcohol use, by contrast, is a growing problem. A 1984 survey of 17-year-olds by the Jellinek agency found that about 10 per cent had consumed at least eight drinks the last time they imbibed. In the newest such poll, the figure was 32 per cent.A first-rate health-care system, along with a wealth of government-provided drug information, helps reduce drug risks. As well, anecdotal evidence suggests that Dutch drug users are considerably more sophisticated and mindful of the dangers of drug use than are their foreign peers.For all the concern about ecstasy, for instance, there have only been about 15 ecstasy-related deaths in Amsterdam in the past 12 years, despite the consumption of millions of the little tablets. In Ontario, there have been at least 13 such deaths in the past two years.Drug use in the Dutch capital reached its zenith in the early 1970s, when a tide of foreign hippies invaded, clogging the streets and reducing the city's now-pristine Vondelpark to something resembling a garbage heap.Today, crack dealers still hover furtively around the central railway station. But for the most part, Amsterdam has evolved into a vibrant, clean, safe city where jobs and money are abundant."I think the attitude toward drug usage here has gotten quite a lot healthier," said rave-party disc jockey O. L., a 24-year-old Californian who has been living and taking drugs in Amsterdam for many years."Your 1960s generation was 'turn on, tune in, drop out.' Our generation is 'turn on, tune in, go to work on Monday.' "With that said, the de facto decriminalization of soft drugs poses other complications, chief of which is the question: Who controls the supply of drugs?In the Netherlands, as well as other countries, the answer is clear: Organized crime.In the hard-drugs world, including that of ecstasy production, the link with the mob -- notably gangsters from Eastern Europe -- has long been evident, and over the years there have been plenty of killings and other violence.But because of the huge sums of money involved, cannabis is also part of that organized-crime pattern, police and other experts say.Beneath the orderly, well-kept veneer of the coffee shops, which pay taxes and are regularly visited by police looking for under-18 patrons, the cannabis industry has a discernibly tough edge. Spend time in any of the outlets lining Amsterdam's streets and canals, and it's just a matter of time before a hard-faced visitor stops by to check up on business."Hard drugs, soft drugs, it's basically the same kind of people running things," said a member of the Flying Brigade, the city police force's mobile unit.On this particular evening, the brigade is parked in Leidseplein, a busy central square, where a band of cheerful pot smokers sits outside the nearby Bulldog coffee shop puffing on fat spliffs.No, the policeman said, he did not really approve. Tolerating soft drugs sends out entirely the wrong message to young people."But what is the alternative? If you shut down the coffee shops, you just drive everything underground and people keep on taking drugs anyway. Just like in your country." Timothy Appleby reports on crime for The Globe and Mail.Published: Saturday, June 10, 2000Copyright  2000 Globe Interactive Related Articles:The Decriminalisation Debate Let's Go Dutch? To Amsterdam For The Cannabis Cup McCaffrey's History of Misinformation
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Comment #4 posted by kaptinemo on June 12, 2000 at 10:48:10 PT:
Thank you, Morgan
I, too, have witnessed the media's tendency to focus on the more outrageous conduct of the movement's members. Unfortunately, there is all too much of that available to focus upon. Three years ago I was at the annual protest at Lafayette Square in DC, and witnessed some truly bizarre behavior by some people. One young man, dressed in shorts, sandals and a makeshift cape was flouncing about, obviously tripping on something a bit stronger than cannabis, and although no doubt he was harmless, someone else might not have thought so. Which is why, I too, believe image so so important.A word about 'weapons', though: I beg to differ with you about the efficacy of truth as opposed to image. The truth hasn't been anywhere near as effective a weapon as image has. Particularly when an image is used as a weapon... against us. The truth about cannabis has been known anecdotally for well over 30 years. But because of the success of the antis in stereotyping its' *users*, the war has gone merrily along. By deflecting attention from the merits of cannabis medically and socially, to the implied 'dangers' of cannabis use as exemplified by seemingly barbaric-looking 'hippie waifs', the antis have been able to cloud the issue by playing upon middle-class prejudices. Prejudices so deeply ingrained they are almost subliminal. And thus are never challenged.I've said it before; sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Sadly, some of the types of personalities displaying the behavior you mentioned play right into the hands of the antis. As I said, there seems to be this Ur-image of the pot smoker as a shiftless creature that no one can trust. The youthful exuberance of those dancers that you mentioned would cause many people watching their antics on TV to interpret their behavior in this light: "Is that all those people do? I have to go to work and make a living; these people are nothing but bums." Given that this seems to be a widely-held viewpoint, the amateur percussionists and quasi-dervishes don't do the rest of us any favors.I've often dreamed of a TV commercial where an 'Upright Citizen' type is seen going about his daily routine, off to work, coming home, being greeted by a smiling wife, happliy shrieking kids, and tail-wagging dog... who at the end of the day, when all is done and the kids off to bed, sits down and shares a double-hosed hookah with his wife before retiring. And the next day he's off to work, again. Aside from the immediate shock value of the added strangeness, it would eventually drive home a point: that cannabis users are no more or less different and a threat than anyone else in your neighborhood. And that the 'straights' were foolish for thinking so in the first place.I know; it remains nothing more than a dream. But so will our hope of cannabis legalization until those whose behavior frightens so many 'straight' fence-sitters take a good hard look at what they are doing to the very cause they say they are supporting.
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #3 posted by Morgan on June 12, 2000 at 09:30:26 PT
Last paragraph
I know this whole 'putting on an image' idea, runs totally against the grain of the cannabis culture of personal freedom, but if you're fighting a war, you use whatever weapon you can find. "Truth" so far, has been a very effective weapon so far in this war, maybe it's time to give 'image' a try.            
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #2 posted by Morgan on June 12, 2000 at 09:00:03 PT
Image is everything
'Image is everything' is a phrase I lived with in my years in the advertising world. Being a person who always valued truth as the highest goal of any inquisitive mind, it always bothered me that these three words were basically the mission statement of my career. And it bothered me even more that this statement was true. The general public will buy anything that has a 'good' image. Wheather or not the product is actually 'good', is a secondary consideration.Last February, I was watching the local news with the hopes of seeing something on a protest at the state capital that I happened to pass during the day. It was a small group, something about medical marijuana, and I passed close enough to see that most were your 'typical' pot protestors, kids mostly, with the long hair, 'disheveled' is a word I guess most people would use. They were beating on drums and some of the women were swirling around in their long peasant skirts. Although this was the basic image one recieved on viewing, I noticed that there were a few 'normal' looking people, holding signs...part of the protest.If the local stations reported on this, I made a bet with myself on 'how' they would report it. I was betting that they would focus on the most outreageous 'looking' (image) people at the protest, as: 1. All the hair and peircings and clothes and beating drums and swirling hippie waifs make for really interesting television and thus capture the viewers attention, and 2. This image has been scaring the crap out of parents for years. Cool! Scaring people is what we're all about. Sure enough, they reported on it and focused exclusively on the more 'colorful' participants, ignoring completely the 'normal' people in the crowd. They had one shot that sticks in my mind, of a young man with red curly hair, a goatee, and various metal things piercing his face. That was pretty much all one could see, as he was joyfully sticking his face right in the camera and puffing away on a very large joint. Now, I thought right there, "Well, that just set the cause back about a year or so." Every parent who was watching that was saying to themselves, "If that's what pot does to a person, I don't want my child getting any where near it." as they write a check to their congressman to further the War on some Drugs. Especially this insidious marijuana drug that'll turn innocent little Bobby into that red haired heathen.I've often thought since then, what would happen if at the next marijuana march/rally/protest, everyone was asked to dress up in their sunday best, get your hair trimmed, take out the nose-rings, cover up the tattoos... what would the reaction to this image be? A bunch of very 'normal' well dressed people marching peacefully down the legalize pot? Would this image (if reported) change any minds? Or would it just mess with some stereotypes? I think it is something to think about. Street theater has been a good tool in the past.I believe it was a tactic with the civil-rights marches back in the sixties. African-Americans back then knew that most white people had a stereotypical image of a black person as basically a not-too-bright, lazy slob. If you watch those old newsreels of the marches, you can see that most of them are wearing their best suit/ dress.I know this whole 'putting on an image' idea, runs totally against the grain of the cannabis culture of personal freedom, but if you'r
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #1 posted by kaptinemo on June 12, 2000 at 05:59:29 PT:
Stereotypes, again. exuberant parade of a couple thousand dishevelled, thoroughly stoned drug lovers... Rubbing shoulders with a horde of scruffy drug users ......joint-puffing party animals...Mr. Appleby, like many of his colleagues, seems to feel an almost reflexive obligation to paint all cannabis users as belonging to the demi-monde... or the lumpenproletariat. And yet, given the statistical probabilities of cannabis use world-wide, it is highly likely that the guy in the suit and tie in the cubicle next to where he sits and writes either has used or is using. And what about his boss? His neighbors? Or, even perhaps, himself?It is this continuation of the stereotype of the cannabis user as a slovenly, long-haired, 'disheveled' (how the antis love that word, but can they pronounce it much less spell it?) dumpster-dwelling, muzzy-headed freak out to seduce their children that makes it so hard sometimes to present our side. In an aside, I went to my State's MMJ hearing in a suit and tie. A lot of us supporters did. Nothing new to me; I have to wear one at work. But because of my almost non-existant hair and business like dress, several pols and cops in civvies thought I was one of *them* come to voice *opposition* to MMJ, and began to speak openly around me, assumimg I shared their views; they believe their own propaganda so much that they can't conceive of someone middle-aged and 'clean-cut' *supporting* MMJ. Some were briefly, genuinely shocked when I told them why I was there. The more accomplished of them managed, after that brief flash of incredulity, to regain their aplomb. And their frowns deepened. I wish you could have seen their faces (snicker).If you take that lesson to heart, you might find a lot more doors opening than if you appear as if you just came from a Jerry Garcia look-alike contest. Many of your elders can't appreciate the old adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
[ Post Comment ]

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: