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Jail Doubles as Classroom in Fight Against Drugs

Before they pass eighth grade, Amsterdam students take part in 'the confrontation'--meeting addicts in their cells. The program was discussed at a European conference on anti-drug efforts.

November 11, 1998|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VIENNA — Before most Dutch children pass eighth grade in Amsterdam's public schools, they go to class beside the heavy steel doors of prison cells and listen to the hard lessons of drug addicts.

The class, which teachers call "the confrontation," is part of the curriculum, and pupils can miss the trip to a police station cellblock only if they have a note from their parents.

In six years with the project, police Sgt. Linda Van den Broek hasn't seen a child excused yet. As frightening as it may be to send a child to sit at a junkie's knee, Dutch parents are frightened enough of drugs to try anything, she said.

About 5,000 of Amsterdam's schoolchildren visit the jailed addicts each year. They are encouraged to write letters to the junkies after the encounter or send them drawings to express their feelings.

"The addict is not telling a story, and he is also not saying, 'Don't do it,' " Van den Broek said. "We give the children information, and they have to decide if they will do drugs or not. That's the key."

The Amsterdam project, which was founded in 1986, is one of many anti-drug experiments discussed here last week by experts from about 20 European countries.

The gathering comes five months after a U.N. summit on the international war on drugs at which nations promised to battle not just supply but demand.

"We must remember that the profits of the big drug traffickers are so great that they are able to invest in the best brains, the best technology," Jack Stewart-Clark, a British member of the European Parliament, told delegates here at the two-day conference. "And they are keeping ahead of the game."

Even given Europe's more liberal approach to drug education and addiction, putting 11- and 12-year-olds in a cellblock with drug addicts goes too far for many Europeans, Van den Broek said.

But she has had calls from law enforcement officials and educators in several other European cities and beyond--including a query from the Los Angeles Police Department--who want to see if they can adapt the program to suit local standards.

Other nations are trying simpler solutions. In Stockholm, experts hope to jolt parents into doing more to prevent teenage drug abuse by revealing statistics about specific schools for the first time in 25 years of surveying ninth-graders.

Previously, parents got a general picture of drug use in the whole city and, especially in middle-class neighborhoods, assumed that the problem was in someone else's schoolyard, said Johan Danielson, the capital's drug coordinator.

All that changed recently when 70 shocked Stockholm parents listened to school-specific statistics and demanded to know what teachers, social workers and police were doing about it. Danielson told the parents that they had to do more for their own children.

Finding the Right Formula

The challenge in fighting drug abuse seems to be finding the right formula--ad campaigns, police crackdowns, community projects and school lessons, all of which can cost billions of dollars a year.

The question experts are still debating is what really works in the effort to prevent drug abuse.

Police in Amsterdam say a 1994 study they commissioned found that, six or seven years later, 18-year-olds remembered meeting the drug addicts; but how much the experience affected their lives is a lot tougher to measure. The European Union has set up a drug monitoring center in Lisbon to search for more answers.

Amsterdam's Jellinek Institute, a center for the prevention and treatment of addiction, has surveyed drug use among 15- and 17-year-olds for the past five years, and its latest figures show little or no increase in the worst categories. Abuse of cocaine and heroin is so low it does not even register in the results of surveys conducted in schools and coffee shops last year.

But more teenagers are experimenting with newer drugs, such as the synthetic hallucinogen Ecstasy, which is not as addictive as cocaine and heroin, said Janhuib Blans, who heads the Jellinek Center.

The reported use of Ecstasy is still relatively low. Three percent of Dutch 17-year-olds said they had taken Ecstasy in the past month, while 19% admitted to smoking marijuana or hashish--a 5% rise over 1995.

In the United States, 11.4% of children ages 12 to 17 said they used an illicit drug within the past month, according to a government survey released this summer. It said 9.4% had used marijuana within the past year and 0.2% had used heroin within the past month.

The Dutch are not waging a U.S.-style war to eradicate drug abuse but instead are trying to prevent addictions to hard drugs such as crack and heroin and avoid the violent crime, AIDS and other dangers that go with them.

"Abstinence is not the goal," Blans said. "The goal is getting out of problems with drugs. That's the Dutch approach, anyway."

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