Authorities in the Netherlands are warning Amsterdam tourists about heroin masquerading as cocaine, which has already killed several people and sent a number of others to the hospital. The campaign is striking because you’d never see one like it in the U.S.: “You will not be arrested for using drugs in Amsterdam,” the fliers promise. Instead, they give information on how to receive medical assistance and how to keep potential overdose victims alert while waiting for help.

Dutch law distinguishes between “soft drugs,” like marijuana, and “hard” ones, like cocaine and heroin. Possession and use of up to 5 grams of marijuana, and 1 gram of cocaine or heroin, is not subject to penalty. In sharp contrast to the U.S., where drug use has primarily been dealt with as a criminal justice issue (although there’s some evidence this is changing), the Dutch approach emphasizes harm reduction and public health.

One of the drawbacks of a criminal justice approach is that the threat of harsh sentencing keeps many drug users from seeking medical assistance in the event of an overdose. That’s not a concern in the Netherlands. The Dutch approach allows authorities to have a frank dialogue with drug users when new dangers arise, like the fake cocaine.

The destigmatization of drug use in the Netherlands also plays a big role in this. Drug users there aren’t thought of as criminals, as in the U.S., but rather as normal people engaging in unhealthy behavior. There’s a notable lack of moral judgment in the language used in the Amsterdam cocaine warnings — contrast this with the rhetoric employed by many of the opponents of drug law liberalization in the U.S.

Some final food for thought: 44 percent of Americans report having used marijuana in their lifetimes, and 14 percent have used cocaine. In the Netherlands, those numbers stand at 26 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

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