The Netherlands are reaping rewards from their liberal attitude toward marijuana and hashish consumption in the country's coffee shops. The Dutch are relatively immune to the lure of hard drugs.
The Dutch example suggests the occasional spliff does not end in reefer madness
"We have lots of young customers who travel via Interrail Pass," said Steve, a coffee shop owner in the Dutch capital Amsterdam. "Sometimes they haven't gotten enough sleep and haven't had enough to eat. If they then smoke a joint or have a space cake (a hash cookie), they might get nauseous. But that's it."
Coffee shops are legal grey areas in the Netherlands. Technically the consumption of soft drugs is still against the law there. But marijuana and hashish usage are tolerated as long as the coffee shops don't admit minors, agree to prevent the sale of hard drugs and don't get on their neighbors' nerves.
Cannabis instead of Crack
Coffee shops attract large numbers of tourists
Dutch drugs expert Gijs van Brussel said the tolerance policy keeps pot smokers away from harder, more addictive substances.
"Hashish is the first drug people experiment with," van Brussel said. "When people turn 18 and enter late puberty, it's sex and drugs and rock'n'roll."
People at that age are unlikely to listen to warnings from their parents, he added.
"Their first drug is cannabis," he said. "If they then come into contact with heroin or cocaine, the chance is greater that they'll experiment with those drugs as well."
The Netherlands make a clear distinction between hard and soft drugs, and the number of Dutch addicts has remained constant at around 25,000. Holland has around 42 drug-related deaths annually -- relatively few compared with other EU countries.
The Dutch view addicts as medical, not criminal cases. Those addicted to harder drugs are treated in the Dutch health-care system and have access to free needle replacement and methadone programs.
The Grass is Greener on the Other Side
Marijuana can also be prescribed by doctors for medicinal purposes
And the availability of cannabis has not turned the Dutch into a country of befuddled stoners, either. Far greater amounts of soft drugs are consumed in England and France -- perhaps because the illicit thrill of lighting up a joint is gone, when it's more-or-less legal.
But the Netherlands' liberal policy has created some problems on along its borders with Belgium and Germany. Hordes of foreign tourists descend on Dutch border towns every day in search of a bag of Acapulco Gold or Panama Red.
Despite German and Belgian protests, the mayor of the town of Venlo allowed a drive-through coffee shop to open on the first highway exit. Local governments in other cities like Maastricht would like to follow suit but have held off -- for fear of getting on their neighbors' nerves.