AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Paul Wilhelm speaks about marijuana the way a vintner might discuss wine. He talks of aroma, taste and texture, of flowering periods, the pros and cons of hydroponic cultivation.
Wilhelm’s connoisseurship might earn him a long prison sentence in the United States, but here in the Netherlands, he’s just another taxpaying businessman. He owns a long-established pot emporium — the Dutch call them “coffee shops” — where customers can sidle up to the bar, peruse a detailed menu, and choose from 22 variations of fragrant marijuana and 18 types of potent hashish.
Business got even better after Wilhelm’s shop, the Dampkring, was featured in the 2004 film “Ocean’s Twelve.”
And yet life is not as simple for Wilhelm as it is for the pub owner down the street, due to the contradictory nature of Holland’s famously liberal drug laws. Though the business is duly licensed and regulated, to run it properly he is forced to flout the law on a daily basis. While the Netherlands allows the sale of small amounts of marijuana in coffee shops, it is still illegal to grow marijuana, store it and transport it in the kind of quantities that any popular shop requires.
Last month, the Dutch parliament began debating a proposal to change that by launching a pilot project to regulate marijuana growing. It was the brainchild of the mayor of Maastricht, a city near the German and Belgian borders that is plagued by gangs of smugglers. Proponents argue that legalizing growing will drive out most of the criminal element and boost responsible purveyors.
“The current policy is schizophrenic,” Wilhelm said. “Under the rules, we can only keep 500 grams in the shop at any one time, so that means I have to have more delivered every few hours. And if the delivery guy gets stopped, they take everything, and he gets arrested.”
For years, that odd state of affairs seemed to work well, because it allowed the Dutch to tolerate marijuana without having to risk the opprobrium that would come from legalizing it. But organized crime has come to play an increasing role in production, the government has found.
A majority in parliament has come out in favor of the bill to decriminalize growing, reflecting widespread Dutch comfort with a liberal marijuana policy. But the ruling Christian Democratic Party, which has increasingly tightened the rules on coffee shops, opposes it. Analysts expect the government to block implementation even if the measure passes.
“It won’t solve anything,” said Ivo Hommes, a spokesman for the justice ministry. “You will still have a large amount of people that will grow marijuana for illegal sales and for international export.”
Though they consider the bill a good first step, Wilhelm and other coffee-shop owners agree. What they really want is full legalization of cannabis. Polls show that a majority of Dutch support that, but the government says it would run afoul of the international narcotics conventions that the Netherlands and most other nations have signed.
Whatever the fate of the legislation, the Dutch debate underscores a schism in the developed world over how to deal with drug use.
Even as the United States continues to spend tens of billions of dollars each year fighting a war on drugs that lately has included an increasing number of marijuana arrests, much of Europe and Canada have instead opted to treat drug use as a public-health problem.
While no country has gone as far as the Netherlands and allowed open sales of marijuana, in most of Europe possession of small amounts of cannabis, and even cocaine and heroin, merits only a fine. Penalties for drug dealing are far lower than in the United States.
Rejecting the approach that has filled America’s jails with nonviolent drug offenders, Europeans and Canadians have embraced the concept of “harm reduction,” which argues that illegal drug use is impossible to stamp out, and therefore the best public policy is to minimize the damage to society.
A central tenet of this approach is giving out clean needles to drug addicts to prevent the spread of HIV — something that remains controversial in the United States but is common in Europe and Canada.
But it goes further: Several countries allow government-financed “consumption rooms” for drug users, to provide them with social services and dissuade them from using drugs on the street. And at least four countries — Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain — have programs under which the government gives heroin to hard-core addicts and lets them inject themselves in a government-sponsored facility.
That idea is profoundly controversial, but the Swiss, who pioneered the practice a decade ago, insist that it has dramatically reduced drug deaths and street crime by addict participants, who no longer have to steal to feed their habits.
Antonio Costa, an Italian who heads the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria, has little patience for Europe’s tolerant stance, which he believes is behind a recent upswing in cocaine use in the region. While overall European drug use has never been as high as that in the United States, U.S. rates have been falling while European rates have been rising.
Many other Europeans, though, shake their heads at what they consider a moralistic, absolutist mind-set among America’s drug warriors.
It’s not that there is no common ground: Even the Dutch arrest drug smugglers (including marijuana traffickers), and in July the Dutch government signed a cooperation agreement with Washington.
But the Dutch coffee-shop policy is grounded in a belief that is anathema to American drug enforcers: that cannabis is no more harmful than alcohol. Dutch experts argue that this remains true even though much of the marijuana grown these days is far more potent than the kind smoked by the flower children of the 1960s.
American officials have long sought to discredit Europe’s more liberal drug policies, and the Dutch experience in particular, sometimes with a selective use of statistics.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, for example, takes aim in an anti-legalization paper on its Web site under a subheading, “Europe’s More Liberal Drug Policies Are Not the Right Model for America.”
The agency points out that from 1984 to 1996, marijuana use doubled among 18- to 25-year-olds in Holland. What it doesn’t say is that marijuana use in the Netherlands has been stable since then, and it remains lower than in the United States, which has seen use rise from a low in 1992.
Indeed, 30 years after the Netherlands began allowing open marijuana sales, only about 3 percent of the Dutch population — or 408,000 people — use marijuana in a given year, compared with 8.6 percent — or 25.5 million — of Americans, according to the most authoritative surveys by both governments.
Dutch health officials say there is no evidence that the country’s tolerant marijuana policy encourages use of harder drugs, which here is about average compared with the rest of Europe, and far lower than in the United States. To the contrary, proponents argue, the policy is designed to separate hard drugs from soft, because coffee shops found selling hard drugs are shut down.
In the United States, meanwhile, the war on drugs has increasingly become a war on pot.
A study of FBI data released last year by a Washington-based think tank, the Sentencing Project, found that between 1992 and 2002, marijuana arrests rose from 28 percent of all drug arrests to 45 percent, while the proportion of heroin and cocaine cases dropped from 55 percent of all drug arrests to fewer than 30 percent.
The rationale behind such a crackdown mystifies Dutch cannabis aficionados such as Wilhelm. He doesn’t argue that marijuana is harmless. But he sees every day that it can be enjoyed recreationally and responsibly, just like alcohol.
“I’ve got three daughters, and I want to know that if they do try marijuana, they’re not going to get it where someone is going to offer them some cocaine or an Ecstasy pill,” Wilhelm said. “I don’t say that marijuana is healthy, but it’s there. You can’t close your eyes and think that if you lock everybody up, it’s going to disappear.”