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America Loves This Dutch Cocaine Warning Sign

Amsterdam's relaxed approach to drug enforcement shows how harm reduction policies can work.

by Mike Pearl
Dec 4 2014, 4:45pm

Photo via Reddit user L299792458

Photo via ​Imgur/Reddit

Now that ​some asshole in Amsterdam is passing off heroin as cocaine, city authorities have created a very helpful sign in English to warn tourists about the dangers of buying hard drugs from strangers. One sentence in the black box at the bottom seems to have captured America's imagination: "You will not be arrested for using drugs in Amsterdam," a remark that prompted Christopher Ingraham of the ​Washington Post to ​praise the sign as "what a sane drug policy looks like." 

The sign, which if full of fun, imperfect English also says that, "Currently extremely dangerous cocaine is being sold in Amsterdam," which flies in the face of the drugs-are-bad-mkay "education" most Americans receive, which claims all coke is extremely dangerous. The sign also instructs the reader to "ignore streetdealers," implying—amazingly—that there are reliable dealers elsewhere.

The sign reflects a Dutch concept called ​Gedogen, a relaxed attitude toward drug enforcement, which is actually not a legal difference between Dutch and American (or British) drug laws. 

Here in the States we urgently needed signs like this earlier this year, when a batch of heroin laced with ​fentanyl caused ​80 fatal overdoses. Police in places like Hartford, Connecticut, issued news releases to the media, and went on TV warning people about the specific "​New World" label. But they didn't distribute anything like the Amesterdam sign, so if heroin users weren't diligently watching the TV news, they probably didn't get the message.

But there could easily be valuable warning signs like this tomorrow in the States without any change in the law. Police departments would just have to allow them to exist. And that's really, really unlikely thanks to a hostile and counterproductive relationship between cops and users.

While common sense should tell you that the best course of action if someone is overdosing is to call an ambulance, in the US—​as well as in the UK—again and again we see people die from overdoses simply because they were afraid to call the authorities. 

And given America's ​​plunging levels of trust in law enforcement in, a sign like this would probably seem like some kind of trap.

The Dutch ​pioneered harm reduction as a response to drug use, and this is just the latest example (although it should be noted that this attitude ​isn't shared by all Dutch people). Meanwhile, even the most basic harm reduction programs in the United States remain controversial, with opposition figures usually ​harping on the ​cost in order to kill lifesaving measures like needle exchanges and ​naloxone, the so-called "heroin antidote."

Amsterdam's policy of treating drug users like adults who can make decisions would be a major deal in the US—and a sign that warns adults of added risks seems like an artifact from another world.

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