Ron Gerring missed the ’60s the first time around, but he figures he’s found a scene almost as good in Amsterdam today. “I see Holland as having only two rules,” says the itinerant singer and songwriter from Toronto: “don’t hurt anybody, and don’t steal anything.” Then there’s the dope. “You don’t have to worry about the police, the window being closed or your mother coming back,” says Gerring, who is 39. “Yeah, this is hedonism.” He smiles and sips his Heineken at the no-frills Hans Brinker Hotel. “Just short of debauchery, I think.”
Many of the Dutch government’s critics would agree, only they’re not smiling. The Netherlands’ social liberalism–what a conservative columnist in Boston called “the Dutch Disease”–is often portrayed as radical, weird, just short of demented. It’s not just a matter of marijuana. Prostitution–long and famously tolerated in the country’s red-light districts–has just been fully legalized, complete with value-added tax on services rendered. This year the Netherlands became the first country in the world to give same-sex marriages a status identical with heterosexual unions, and its Parliament made “mercy killing” the law of the land. To conservatives from Austria to Austin, Texas, the Netherlands looks like a kind of latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet the precedents set by its social and legal innovations are being studied closely by its European neighbors, and even some states in America. Where will it end? Will euthanasia, which has already spread to Oregon, grow more widely accepted in the United States? Denmark, France and Vermont have “registered partnerships” for same-sex couples; should they push ahead now with full-fledged matrimony? Is the Netherlands an aberration, or the future? Are its people more insane–or more humane–than the rest of us?
Maybe they’re just more Dutch. In truth, a less debauched, more innately conservative people would be hard to find. (“Most of my Dutch friends don’t smoke grass,” Gerring notes.) Theirs is not so much a sensual country as a consensual one, where compromise and moderation are the order of the day. Their “revolutionary” laws were passed not to transform their society but to preserve it. “This is a small country with a small circle of people who are making these laws,” says Herman Philipse, head of the philosophy department at the University of Leiden. “There is more mutual trust than in larger cultures. It has been more or less stable for the last 500 years.” There’s pragmatism, but also a heavy dose of parochialism and “naivete,” says Philipse. “They don’t think through the reaction in other countries.”
Jan-Wolter Wabeke, 52, has been at the epicenter of the debate over the Netherlands’ social legislation both at home and abroad. If a computer created the model of a modern Dutchman, Wabeke might well be it. Tall and blond, he dresses in rimless glasses, a dark suit and a silk tie, which bespeak the sobriety you’d expect from a man who’s spent most of the past decade as one of the Netherlands’ chief public prosecutors. Part of his business was to put big-time drug dealers in jail. He often worked closely with his colleagues in Belgium and France to crack down on “drug tourists” who buy dope in the Netherlands for small-time stashes and deals back home. A pillar of the community, Wabeke has lived with the same man, photographer Jan Swinkels, for the past 25 years. They’ve shared good times and bad, including the sadness of watching both their fathers die through euthanasia. And last April Wabeke and Swinkels were married, husband and husband, under the new Dutch law.
Wabeke was one of the architects of the legislation, hailed from San Francisco to Paris as a great example of gay liberation. “But the first issue was strictly business,” he says. In the 1980s openly gay couples discovered that their partners had no rights to their pensions. Among lesbian couples who had children, the biological father–or even his parents–could take legal precedence over the female partner who raised them. The only legal institution that could protect these couples was marriage, says Wabeke, because it was binding on third parties. In the eyes of the law, only marriage is as close a family tie as blood.
While Wabeke stayed behind the scenes, Henk Krol took the lead in the campaign to win same-sex couples equal rights. Formerly the spokesman for the Liberal Party faction in Parliament, Krol is also the editor of the magazine Gay Krant (Gay News). “We realized the most difficult thing would be to convince the gay community, because they saw ‘marriage’ as so old-fashioned,” he says. “Twenty years ago, if you were openly gay, you were an outcast, and ‘moral discussions’ were for the straight community.” But as society became more tolerant of gays and lesbians, they became more comfortable in the mainstream, and ever more conscious of their rights and responsibilities. “In that respect,” says Wabeke, “our project for marriage is rather conservative and bourgeois.”
The Dutch are not people to be rushed. Before new legislation is passed, the courts allow society to spend years trying out practices that are officially illegal. The Netherlands, unlike France and other European countries, does not obligate authorities to prosecute crimes. They have the discretion to decide what action is appropriate in individual cases. The society at large makes similar judgments. “To understand the Dutch, you’ve got to start out with the word gedogen,” says former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands K. Terry Dornbush. “It basically means to permit, to live with, to be able to tolerate. A lot of what you see in terms of legislation has been subject to gedogen for years. By the time it’s written into law, it almost doesn’t make a difference.”
Such was the case with euthanasia. “It’s more regulated, but I am doing what I did before,” says Dr. Ruud Peters, a family physician in The Hague. The Dutch believe euthanasia is practiced in most countries behind a screen of euphemisms. “If no one dares to talk about it, then everyone does it under the table a little bit, and you have problems,” says Peters. In the 1970s an anesthesiologist in Delft started lifting the curtain on the practice, writing about how, precisely, a physician could best meet his patients’ need to die. By the 1990s detailed procedures were available to doctors and patients, and the practice was officially tolerated. Now that the law has been passed, the requirements for second opinions and the exhaustion of other options before ending a patient’s suffering are laid out in detail.
There is a danger of abuses, to be sure. Not all patients have been mentally competent, or even conscious, when their families and doctors decided they should die. Some of the dead, according to groups who oppose euthanasia, have been newborns. The German press, ever conscious of the Nazis’ abuses, reacted in dismay to the Dutch legislation. But most people in the Netherlands remain confident they’ve made the right decision. “We are highly educated,” says Peters. “Every man and woman knows what is wrong and what is not.”
This Calvinist sense of rectitude and responsibility, which is central to the Dutch experience, is just as important for its social and legislative experiments. “Believing or not believing [in God] was always a very personal choice, for which you had to account,” says Leiden University’s Philipse. “And what you do, you ought to say that you do. So if euthanasia happens–and it does happen in all countries–then it should be officially, legally recognized.”
Yet the Dutch have some blind spots. It’s not possible to isolate their social experiments from the world outside the Netherlands. For instance, Dutch tolerance has become a magnet not only for free-spirited pot smokers but for organized crime. The Netherlands’ openness to commerce–Rotterdam bills itself as the biggest port in the world–makes contraband almost impossible to stop. As a result, the Netherlands is a center not only for big-time drug dealers but for gunrunners from all over the world. “The problem,” says a prominent law-enforcement official in Rotterdam, “is that our laws are not adapted to this situation.”
The Netherlands’ decision to decriminalize marijuana dates to the 1970s. The intent was to separate its sale from that of hard narcotics, especially heroin, so dealers pushing the first wouldn’t try to lure young customers to the second. At the same time, heroin and cocaine users were to be treated as patients rather than criminals. Today, as far as heroin is concerned, the policy has worked. According to the latest report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, an EU agency based in Lisbon, the Netherlands ranks lower than Luxembourg, Italy, Britain, Spain, Ireland, France, Austria, Belgium and Denmark in proportionate numbers of heroin addicts.
But new drugs are presenting new challenges. Ecstasy, or MDMA, the substance that fuels the frenzy at countless raves and house parties around the globe, is completely illegal in the Netherlands–and widely available. The country has also become the biggest MDMA supplier to Israeli and Russian gangs bringing millions of pills into the United States. Last year, in a single operation coordinated with Dutch police, U.S. Customs seized 2.1 million tablets overnighted from Amsterdam.
“Holland is a menace,” says an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But the basic problem isn’t its tolerance for drugs, it’s the rules of evidence meant to protect the rights of all defendants. Until recently, evidence gathered by undercover police or hidden microphones was strictly forbidden in Dutch courts, and it’s still illegal for Dutch cops to engage in the kind of tactics American narcs commonly use. They can’t work disguised as dealers or buyers. They’re prohibited from participating in any drug transactions. Worse still, from the DEA’s point of view, the evidence it gathers using these techniques elsewhere is not admissible in Dutch courts.
In fact, the world around the Netherlands–and inside the Netherlands–has begun to change so quickly that the country’s traditions of consensus and tolerance are going to come under increasing pressure. Its “foreign” population is growing quickly, with 50 percent of the people in the major cities expected to be recent immigrants or their descendants in the next two decades. Many are Muslims, not Calvinists. Will they be integrated into the country’s traditions, as previous immigrants were, or will they change them? Will “every man and woman” know, in the sense that Dr. Peters meant it, “what is wrong and what is not”? Perhaps. But it is just as likely that the world will change the Netherlands before the Netherlands truly has a chance to change the world.