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Amsterdam and drugs: know before you go


Famed for the fact that marijuana is legal there, Amsterdam is crying out to be visited by many students looking for a short break from term. Here, Alice Lynch highlights the less known, more dangerous truth about drugs. 

There is no better place to take a mid-term break than Amsterdam; strolling along the icy canals, exploring the sprawling markets and endless cheese shops, and sheltering from the chill inside one of the hundreds of coffee shops and “alternative” museums. It also provides the perfect place to let loose a bit after the stress of January exams, with that fresh student loan instalment just waiting to be spent in the least sensible ways possible. The city is a popular destination for young Brits seeking a weekend away, for its beauty and culture as well as nightlife. However on a recent trip to the Dutch city it became clear to me that a new danger has surfaced on the streets of Amsterdam, a danger that has already cost several individuals their lives. On every street, flashing signs can be found warning against the dangers of deadly white heroin being sold as cocaine. The lethal substance is being sold by street dealers under the mask of cocaine and several people (including two young British tourists) have died after taking the drug as well as dozens more needing serious medical attention.

Police spokesman Mr van der Veen has wisely acknowledged that “young people don’t all come to Amsterdam to see the tulips”, however stresses the importance of remaining aware and informed. Going into a coffee shop and ordering a legal amount of marijuana is inadvisable in itself (see the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s advice), but illegal substances such as ecstasy or cocaine carry much higher risks, Van der Veer explains. As well as its own inherent dangers, cocaine is also almost impossible to distinguish from white heroin, which if snorted can cause respiratory failure.

So what is white heroin? It has been described as a sort of “luxury drug” laced with powerful painkillers, most commonly purchased by wealthier individuals. While it may look like cocaine, it is used in different ways and the effects of snorting it can be fatal. The curious thing is, white heroin is far more expensive than cocaine – yet in these cases, it has been sold at the same price. This has raised questions about the motives of those dealing it. Are they intentionally misnaming the substances to cause harm? Or are they simply unaware of what they are selling?

So far, the victims have been mainly tourists; local police have guessed that this may be because the drugs are being sold on the street by dealers who speak good English. Tourists are being warned to stay away from street dealers, and urged to call the emergency services immediately if somebody seems to have been affected. “If people are stupid enough to use and get sick we are not there to arrest them, we are there to save lives. That is our highest priority”, stated Van der Veen last month. “What happens in Amsterdam, stays in Amsterdam” only goes so far, and not if it’s your body being flown home to your family. (See the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s advice on the drug.)

While Amsterdam has a relaxed approach to marijuana in small quantities, the same does not go for hard drugs. Avoiding substances altogether is the best way to stay out of trouble, both in terms of your safety and criminal record. It is also worth remembering that there are still limitations on the use of marijuana; smoking in public is prohibited, as is buying or selling larger quantities. And don’t even think about trying to smuggle any home with you. Beyond the coffee shop scene, the city has far more to offer – the ice rinks, the Van Gogh museum and Anne Frank Huis are all worth a visit, and the nightlife is incredible. If you’re planning on a post-exam break to Amsterdam any time soon, check out the FCO’s travel pages to make sure you know your stuff. Alternatively, the FCO’s Twitter page is great for providing regular useful updates.

Alice Lynch

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