The conservative Dutch government's attempted hard line against cannabis in a country famed for its tolerance of the herb was shaken this week as one cabinet member went off the reservation by calling for the complete legalization of "soft drugs," i.e. cannabis, throughout Europe. Those comments contradicted the official anti-cannabis line laid down by the Dutch Justice Ministry, but, according to polls released Wednesday, reflect the sentiments of Dutch voters and local elected officials.
While the Christian Democrat-led Dutch government has been making noises about cracking down on the country's famed cannabis coffee shops ever since it was elected, this week's furor began on Monday, when Minister for Democratic Reform Alexander Pechtold told reporters he supported the complete legalization of cannabis in Europe. The comments came as he visited the border city of Venlo, long a favorite of "drug tourists" from nearby Germany and Belgium. Officials there and in other border towns are examining how to deal with the influx of dope-seeking foreigners. While Pechtold said cannabis should be legalized, in the meantime he supported the proposal by some mayors for the creation of a "cannabis boulevard" on the outskirts of border towns where coffee shops could be relocated to minimize problems.
That same day, Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner, an anti-cannabis hard-liner, was busily rejecting suggestions from mayors in the southern Limburg region to legalize cannabis. "Southern Limburg would become the narcotics state of Europe," Donner warned. As for Pechtold's remarks, those were a "beginner's error," said Donner.
By Tuesday, Donner was downplaying the controversy. "It is a lot of commotion about nothing," he told reporters. "Essentially, we have no difference of opinion."
But there is indeed a difference of opinion within the Dutch government. The majority Christian Democrats are keen to implement a tougher policy on coffee shops and have introduced legislation making it easier to shut them down to eliminate disturbances. But Pechtold's party, Democracy 66, the junior member in the ruling coalition, calls for the legalization of cannabis. That position puts D66 more in line with the cannabis policies of the opposition Labor and Green parties, both of which greeted Pechtold's remarks warmly.
"There is now a minister who dares to think," said Labor Party leader Woulter Bos.
Pechtold's pro-legalization position also won support from Dutch mayors and citizens polled on the issue this week. In one poll, the newspaper Trouw interviewed the mayor's of Holland's 30 largest cities, and found that two-thirds supported legalization. And in a sounding of public opinion, Dutch pollster Maurice de Hond found that 49% supported legalization, 15% wanted the current policy of tolerance to continue, while only 33% wanted a more restrictive policy.
The brouhaha over cannabis policy has also reached the Dutch parliament. Hearings were set for Wednesday on the issue. But those hearings were upstaged by a joint statement that day by Pechtold and Donner in which Pechtold caved in and embraced the government's position against creating "cannabis boulevards" and that cannabis legalization is not an option for Holland.
Under current Dutch law, the coffee shops are technically illegal but tolerated and regulated. Cannabis cultivation remains a crime that is prosecuted.