Amsterdam shows the way out of drugs prohibition

The Observer, September 2 1984

The first uncertain sign of a new approach to the heroin epidemic in Western Europe is a scruffy wooden shack astride two barges on a canal in the middle of Amsterdam.

While people pass by on the pavement above, inside almost every drug law in the country is being flouted. It is effectively a floating speakeasy for junkies, crammed from wall to wall with young people smoking, buying, selling – and talking – junk.

It marks a spontaneous rebellion by a remarkable union of interests: brothel keepers, porn merchants, small shopkeepers and families whose lives in the north-east of the city centre were being ruined by the addicts’ street scene.

The brothel keepers and the porn merchants wanted to get the police out of their hair, shopkeepers to protect their customers from intimidation and mugging, and families wanted to sleep safely at night. All had suffered burglaries and thefts.

They occupied the city hall for publicity, evicted the junkies from big squats and raised £5,000 to buy and fit out the barge. The city council agreed to reimburse them, and the police said they would give a low priority to arrests on the barge.

Inside the shack everyone is sweating beneath the naked strip lights; the air is thick with smoke and the accumulated body heat of more than a hundred people standing and squatting, shoulder to shoulder, in a room 20 feet square.

Everyone is stoned on heroin, but nobody is quiet. Lots of people are hassling: “Methadone, methadone . . . Who wants smack? You want smack? It’s good stuff; I tell you, it’s good stuff…” Others crouch in little groups, smoothing out silver paper, laying out lines of heroin, burning, smoking, sucking, sniffing.

The main dealers are from Surinam, the former Dutch colony in South America. Users come from all over the world.

Carel, chubby, red-faced, who grins while he smokes, is Dutch, an addict for 16 years. “I used to be always fixing, but now mostly I only smoke. Even in the army, I used to be fixing heroin and cocaine.”

Keith is German, on the run from a five-year sentence and without papers for Holland. Liam is from Dublin, where the police scene is very heavy. Rox is butch, aged 31: “I ran away from school when I was 11 and got into speed and some other things, then junk. I’ve been a junkie since I was about 15. I don’t remember exactly. I’m not proud of it.”

Sitting in the middle is a 73-year-old retired municipal worker known as Uncle Ed. He sells bananas and oranges from a small bar. “I am their father,” he says. “I have many bad boys on this boat, but we like one another very much.”

Uncle Ed remembers an interesting visitor from England last month. He was David Mellor, the Home Office minister responsible for fighting heroin abuse, who was taken by a Dutch detective who assured the dealer on the door that he would not bust them. Mr Mellor was accompanied by a deputy under secretary from the Home Office.

They were shown the barge because it represents, in an imperfect and immature form, an attempt by the Dutch to move from the strategy of prohibition which has dominated the response to the present epidemic.

Amsterdam’s heroin problem began in 1972, when the small groups of hippies and bohemians who smoked opium regularly in the Chinese quarter lost their supply for several months and started using heroin instead. The trade grew slowly until 1975, when the Chinese godfather who controlled the heroin market was killed. Rival groups started selling outside the Chinese quarter and a secondary surge came from American soldiers smuggling heroin to bases in neighbouring Germany.

Although the Dutch government favours prohibition, the city council, which has borne the brunt of the problem, is developing an alternative, based on the insight that the drug is not in itself harmful to the bodies or minds of those who use it. Its argument is that the dangers of heroin stem directly from its illegality.

Addicts overdose by using an unexpectedly pure batch; or poison themselves because their supply is diluted with other substances by dealers; die of infections from dirty needles; cannot work because they have to spend their time scoring; have to steal to pay their way and are stigmatised with criminal records.

Heroin use spreads like an epidemic because it is illegal. Every small user has to become a small dealer to support the habit, so he or she sells to non-users who in turn have to find new users to fund their habits.

The city council has been persuaded by residents’ committees, social workers and the ‘Junkiebund,’ the junkies’ union, that the future lies with a strategy of ‘maintenance’, ie maintaining a steady legal and clean supply for established addicts.

For the user the argument is that no addict is forced to abandon his or her habit. The only hope is that he or she can be kept alive long enough to decide to give up. That means maintaining junkies with a legal source to remove them from the black market’s dangers. For the potential new user, the idea is to stop the spread of heroin by removing the first and busiest layer of the market, the small user/dealer; and, second, to attack the big dealers who run the main supply lines.

All sides recognise that the barge is only a beginning. The junkies’ union is angry that it has merely hidden the problem. Peter Brand, one of its voluntary workers, said: “It is the same situation on the street, the same people who have the power. There must be street corner workers and social workers. We believe users should be able to get supplies from their own doctors who know them.’

The neighbourhood committee which set up the boat is pressing for doctors to be allowed to prescribe heroin. Community worker Willem Meurs said: “The trouble is that politically it is a very unpopular problem. It is not a thing for politicians to gain points with.”

The strongest weapon is the sight of the remnants of Amsterdam’s street scene, concentrated on one end of the Zeedijk . There, dealers slouch in doorways or lean on the bridges over the canals. In public, people fix and smoke heroin as police walk by. Mostly the police turn a blind eye. Sometimes they take the syringe, break it and throw it away and tell the addicts to go to the boat.

One bridge has a permanent population of half-a-dozen waif like girls, selling themselves to men for 25 guilders (about £6). Liane, aged 21, said: “I buy smack for 25 guilders, get stoned, then I go to the bridge to get another 25 guilders and then I get stoned again.”

The result of Mr Mellor’s visit remains to be seen. Opinion among senior Home Office civil servants and policemen has shifted in favour of a more flexible approach.

One senior Whitehall source said: “Junkies have a very low priority. If you look at it from a crime point of view, the victims of rape, murder, arson, who are all totally innocent, rate much higher. If you think of it as a health issue, a junkie rates lower than a heart patient or a kidney patient because a junkie’s problem is self-inflicted.

“There are clearly very strong arguments for adopting an entirely new approach, but it seems unlikely that this government will be willing to fight the political battle that would be necessary.”