For many decades now, the Dutch have been leading the way on liberal social policies and the United States slowly, ever so slowly, one state at a time, has been following behind.
First there was the official decriminalization of marijuana, which dates to 1976 in The Netherlands. (Twenty-four of 50 states have now relaxed laws against marijuana possession or legalized it for medical use. Colorado, as we know, just legalized it altogether.) Then the Dutch got same-sex marriage in 2001. (To date, 17 states in the USA have gay marriage—and 33 have banned it). In 2002, the Netherlands legalized euthanasia. (No state in America allows a doctor to administer a lethal dose of drugs, but four states will let a patient do so with medical supervision.)
The latest Dutch social experiment is not so dramatic, but it’s something American cities might want to think about. In Amsterdam, alcoholic street people are doing public service work and getting paid each day, in part, with cans of beer. They’re cleaning playgrounds, picking up trash, and then kicking back with a cold one. As a result not only are the public spaces getting tidier, the people in the program are starting to clean up their acts in a city where drunken indigents are known for generating a lot of petty crime and random violence.
The initiative was started in May 2012 by Rainbow, a charity partly funded by the Amsterdam city council. It covers all the major parks in the city, and it fits into the broader concept of “harm reduction” that has driven several innovative policies over the years.
“There were successful similar projects in Amsterdam before,” says Floor van Bakkum of Jellinek, a prominent government-funded institute that works with substance abusers. “In dealing with heroin addicts for example, they were given free methadone and heroin,” says Van Bakkum.
As with the drug addicts, the group participating in the “park sweep project” is no random gathering. You have to be in pretty bad shape to qualify. “We are talking about chronic alcoholics with no chance of recovery, who systematically fall ‘off the wagon’ and create quite a bit of disturbance,” says Van Bakkum.
In the United States, if past experience is any indication, New England and a few states in the West, especially the West Coast, might find this approach interesting. Newly liberal New York City might be receptive, too. But as Americans have seen with marijuana, same-sex marriage, physician-assisted deaths and needle-exchange programs, even this relatively innocuous toast to human frailty with a can of beer is likely to run up against deeply ingrained notions about temperance and the work ethic.
How does it look on the street in The Netherlands? At one of Rainbow’s “walk-in-houses” in the center of Amsterdam this week there was a constant hum of people coming and going. From the street, looking in through the big windows, you could see that some were drunk, some were stoned and most looked homeless, lost or lonely.
Jonnie Peereboom is the location manager for one of the rooms that is literally open to anyone, right off the streets. “I’ve been in this line of work for over 15 years and I’ve seen all kinds,” he said with a smile.
The cleaning crew for alcoholics is just one part of a larger scheme, Peerebom told me. He has a crew, but members can’t be drunk: “They get a few euros and a meal, paid for by the city council.” The beer incentive is a relatively new addition, he says, but it works. “You need to give them something to do, you know.” And he has few illusions about the people he works with. The shelter is like a small prison, he says matter-of-factly: “If this place were to shut down, some would move to the big prison, and this place costs only a fraction of a stay in the big one.”
Janneke van Loo, the regional manager for Rainbow, runs a park-cleaning group in East Amsterdam. “We have 20 participants,” she says. “It is a steady group of men over 45 years old. It is always the same people who come to work with us three times a week from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. They have a regular route coordinated with the city cleaning service. Along the way they do odd jobs, like shoveling snow in winter, or helping people in the neighborhood clearing the rubbish in some corner or square. They find it gratifying to work for people who thank them afterward.”
“Success,” says Van Loo, “is measured on different levels: There are less complaints about neighborhood nuisance at the city council and local police. People feel safer. The police call it a success. For us aid workers the success is determined on an individual level; it is quite an accomplishment to see them keep turning up three times a week at 9:00 a.m.”
“Several of them have said that they are drinking less than before, which is kind of logical,” Van Loo says. “If they were not working, they would be sitting on a bench and easily down three to four beers an hour.”
Many of Rainbow’s visitors at the rooms where Jonnie Peerebom works, especially those who are illegal immigrants, would find it very difficult to survive without its assistance. “Our guests have no choice,” says Peerebom. If not for this place, they would have to steal their food, he says: “The supermarket would not be happy if we left.”
The idea of the beer incentive combined with other parts of the program is “to better this group’s situation, improving their living conditions,” says Van Bakkum at Jellinek. “It gives them something to do, through which they gain some self-esteem. It also reduces nuisance, so there is less trouble in the neighborhood. At Jellinek we advocate these kinds of projects, although they have to be monitored carefully.” (One lesson of past harm reduction programs for drug users was that they had to have structure and demand some discipline from the addicts. Hard-core heroin addicts now get it by prescription at government distribution points in a program that dates back to 1998.)
Meanwhile, as some states in the United States catch up to The Netherlands on other issues, the Dutch are watching.
I asked Van Bakkum what she thought of the full legalization of cannabis in Colorado. In The Netherlands there’s a huge gray area created by the fact that growing and selling large quantities of pot is firmly illegal, while coffee shops all over the country continue to sell “decriminalized” dope as readily as Starbucks sells lattes. Naturally, that’s the kind of opening that organized crime just loves. In Colorado, it appears that sort of anomaly won’t be available to big-time criminals, and pot smokers can light up in peace.
Van Bakkum smiled. “We are envious,” she said.
With Christopher Dickey
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