Drugs on the Head of the Zeedijk

Zeedijk, Amsterdam, 1994

Let’s face it, if the heroin trade wouldn’t have caused so much nuisance to local businesses, the Ministry of Justice would never have invested all these millions into easily accessible social services. Actually, politicians didn’t want to help heroin addicts, they just wanted to get rid of the nuisance.  

Ever since the 1960s Amsterdam has known a sharp contrast between so called “soft drugs” and “hard drugs”. Soft drugs were tolerated, and the police knew that coffee shops had their “house dealers”. The prominent gangsters of the Red Light District were happy to smuggle soft drugs, but they didn’t touch hard drugs, because they were a different matter altogether. Hard drugs harmed people, destroyed people’s lives and the lives of their families, and moreover, if you got caught dealing or smuggling hard drugs you went to jail for a very long time.  

Because the local gangsters wouldn’t touch hard drugs, it was just not done, people from outside stepped in to fill the gap.  

In the early 1970s heroin became widely available in the Netherlands. The remaining experimenters and more dedicated multiple drug users, in particular those injecting opiates or amphetamines, were the first groups to experience heroin. It was certainly not a working class drug. The intensity of the first experiments with heroin initially suppressed and masked additional drug use among these users. As a result, with the introduction of heroin, the phenomenon of drug use was redefined from “drug problem” to “heroin problem,” and moved into a new and highly turbulent phase. From that moment on, heroin and its initial users went their own way. From about 1972 to 1975 they were joined by a completely new user group with an entirely different socio-demographic and cultural background and little drug experience — the Surinamese. Shortly after, a significant number of South Moluccan users followed, and around 1975, after heroin entered mainstream discotheques, another group — working class white Dutch adolescents — appeared on the scene. This group, which previously had limited their drug use to tobacco and alcoholic beverages, progressed very fast from cannabis to heroin. At the end of the 1970s a second generation of young adolescents with similar socio-economic characteristics followed. Somewhat simultaneously, second generation immigrants, in particular Moroccans, became involved in heroin use. 

The early 1980s was also the period in which cocaine made its way up; into post modern entertainment and the ranks of the young urban unemployed and their working counterparts. In these groups, use of cocaine, seemingly, has not lead to massive problems. But, almost simultaneously cocaine has also taken the stairs down. Already in 1981, heroin and cocaine were sold together on the Zeedijk in Amsterdam. 

Zwarte Jopie (Black Jopie), his real name was Maurits de Vries, was a main figure in the history of the Dutch gangland, because in those days he was the first real padrone of the Amsterdam gangland, and because he had contacts with the American Mafia. However, Zwarte Jopie was an old fashioned Amsterdam gangster, and he didn’t like hard drug dealers and junkies. He was into sex clubs and gambling, and had his own empire on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal. Zwarte Jopie protected the areas of his commercial interests, and he made sure that these areas were free from drug dealers and addicts, using body builders and martial arts champions as security guards. With corruption in the police force, the police was your best friend as long as you paid. Jopie thought that the presence of so many sports types in “his” streets could prevent a lot of trouble. And he proved to be right. Jopie even had his own waste disposal service, which picked up the garbage several times a day, not only from his own companies, but also from residents and businesses along the route. However, not everyone in the Red Light District was happy with Zwarte Jopie. Drug dealers and addicts moved to other streets and alleys, where Jopie had no interests. The residents of these streets, like those of the Zeedijk, particularly the Head of the Zeedijk, were quite pissed off with Zwarte Jopie, because he made their lives hell.  

While they actually had handed over the area of the Oudezijds Voorburgwal to Zwarte Jopie and his security guards, the police had lost the territory of the Head of the Zeedijk to a mob of heroin dealers and junkies. This part of the Red Light District was a war zone.  

Something had to be done.  

The Zeedijk runs parallel to the eastern border of the Red Light District. From the nineteenth century the Red Light District was developed here, and the number of bars and restaurants increased. Although much money was earned in this neighbourhood, it was not invested. The Zeedijk became run down and impoverished. Already in the 1970s the street was notorious, being the centre of the hard drugs trade, and for a long time it was a no-go area. Buildings were boarded up, drug dealers and junkies made the scene, no mail was delivered and the garbage could only be collected under police escort. It was complete degradation.  

The local Warmoesstraat police station was a dirty joint, and they didn’t have a kitchen. The policemen on duty had to get the food for the detainees from Chinese restaurants, or sandwich shops. Elderly policemen would prepare coffee. The desk was busy all day. Arrested people, drunken prostitutes, a murderer who came to turn himself in, mugged tourists, they all entered through the same door and stood at the same desk, to wait for their turn. That’s impossible now; detainees have a separate entrance.  

It was an exceptional environment. In the morning you could still smell the piss and vomit from the previous day.  

Our dream of one huge integrated easily accessible social services centre for heroin addicts didn’t come true. One of the reasons was that the residents didn’t want such a centre in their neighbourhoods. Another reason was that the minority groups, especially the Surinamese, the South Moluccans and the Moroccans, wanted their own centres, specialised in the specific ethnic problems of their addicts.  

The neighbours favoured Zwarte Jopie’s methods of dealing with dealers and junkies: beat the shit out of them and kick them out of the neighbourhood. Most police officers backed them up in this opinion. However, their superiors soon realised that this wouldn’t be solving the problems, just shifting them to other places.  

So we settled in different buildings, even in a barge, scattered around the Central Station. Close enough to the Head of the Zeedijk, but not actually in it, although our streetcornerworkers were there all the time, some of them undercover.  

The Amsterdam police, and the local and national authorities as a whole, had suffered enormous loss of face, because the city of Amsterdam was a main tourist attraction, yet they were not able to solve the massive problems in the Head of the Zeedijk, which spread throughout the city. This was mainly a political problem, caused by the economical cuts. The budgets of the police were cut, so choices had to be made. The police argued that they couldn’t be in two places at the same time, and that the government needed to give them more money if they wanted the problems solved. The government agreed that something had to be done. 

Cleaning up the Head of the Zeedijk and solving the problems was a massive operation. Apart from local authorities and courts, and private organisations, four ministries were involved: the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Home Office), the Ministry of Health and Wellbeing, and the Ministry of Social Affairs. Being part of the Justice team, I was involved in several structural consultations, like the tripartite talks between the Counsel for the Prosecution, the Courts and Social Services, the tripartite talks between the Counsel for the Prosecution, the Courts and the President of the Bar Council, the tripartite talks between the Police, Social Services and the City Council, etcetera. In those days I spent most of my time in neon lit offices.  

More than ten thousand heroin junkies were living in Amsterdam, and a lot of them were hanging out in the Head of the Zeedijk, the infamous no-go area. The plan was to get a picture of the Amsterdam heroin problems, which was our task, while at the same time the Amsterdam police force would be temporarily reinforced, to implement a repressive regime.  

In a nutshell it worked like this: the police would arrest heroin users and dealers. Most of the small-time dealers were addicts themselves, so they also were our responsibility. Immediately after their arrest we would visit them in a police station or in prison, where we would offer them the services of our centre and maintenance rations of methadone. We instructed our physicians to be generous with these rations, to prevent addicts to get withdrawal symptoms. If the detainees refused our offer, they would be prosecuted. Hardly any of them refused. If they showed up in the Zeedijk area after their arrest, they would get a court injunction for this area.  

The police shut down the squats in the Head of the Zeedijk, including the illegal drug cafes, and the number of heroin addicts fell from ten thousand to seven thousand. That figure however was quite deceptive. No, we didn’t manage to get three thousand heroin addicts clean. Instead, we turned three thousand heroin addicts into methadone addicts, and to be honest, that was a good thing. Our methadone was a clean pharmaceutical product, contrary to the street heroin they used before. One of our clients, let’s call her Jodie, received a huge inheritance, and for three years she was able to buy good quality heroin. She looked absolutely healthy. But then she ran out of money and she started to buy street heroin. Within a year she lost most of her teeth and she looked awfully unhealthy. That’s when we started to think of a special program for severe heroin addicts, giving them clean heroin, because a lot of these addicts sold their methadone on the Blauwe Brug (Blue Bridge), which therefore was nicknamed Pillenbrug (Pill Bridge), and with the money they got from that, they bought street heroin. (Later we managed to get one hundred people into this special program, as a start; now there are about three thousand people in the program. These people live normal lives, in normal neighbourhoods, and are no longer stigmatised or criminalised because of their addiction. They get their clean heroin at the local pharmacy.)  

Even international media like the BBC and the International Herald Tribune reported the clean up in the Red Light District. But this commotion was nothing new; in fact it’s a cyclical movement. The Red Light District has always attracted all sorts of people. It’s a neighbourhood where you can do things you’re not allowed to do at home. Cleaning up is an integral part of the history of the neighbourhood.  

But this time it took years before the neighbourhood really recovered.  

On August 5, 1986, police officer Peter Lugten, 29, was killed when he tried to negotiate between some dealers and a paranoid junkie. He stabbed Lugten to death.  

On May 13, 1988, at 3am, the influential trumpeter Chet Baker, probably under the influence of drugs, fell from a Prins Hendrik Hotel window on the second floor, at the Prins Hendrikkade 55, near the corner of the Warmoesstraat and the Head of the Zeedijk. The police found heroin and cocaine in his room. Chet Baker didn’t survive this fall. A memorial stone was erected near the hotel.  

During the heroin craze many people had left the neighbourhood. Their businesses were destroyed, their lives were ruined. Some of them had been my clients, when I managed my friend’s pub for two years, and some of their children, who I saw grow up from early childhood, became my clients when I was a probation officer, specialised in criminal addicts. Two of them died, they committed suicide in prison. I went to their funerals and comforted their parents. For them life in the Red Light District would never be the same.  

At the request of local residents the City of Amsterdam came to rescue and in 1985 the NV Economic Recovery Zeedijk was founded. This organisation was partially funded by private parties, and was thus a form of public-private partnerships. By purchasing properties from private owners and renting the premises to legitimate businesses, they succeeded to break the negative spiral.  

After thorough refurbishment activities of the municipality, the street slowly recovered. Drug trafficking largely disappeared. Once more it was a typical old Amsterdam street, always with a large mixed audience and many restaurants. This neighbourhood is now called the Nautical Quarter.  

In 1989 I walked my oldest daughter, then 16, to the Central Station. Instead of taking the detour via the Damrak or the Gelderse Kade, I decided to take the direct route, via the Zeedijk. 

“Are you sure it’s safe, Jack?” she asked. 

“Pretty sure,” I said.  

We walked and saw a bunch of Surinamese guys hanging out opposite Nam Kee’s restaurant. “I’m afraid, Jack,” my daughter said. 

“Just keep walking,” I said.  

When we were about to pass the guys, one of them shouted, “Hey Jackie!” 

I was surprised and replied, “Hey Erroll, how are you doing, man?” 

We had a nice chat, and my daughter felt quite safe. Then we had to move on, because she had a train to catch.  

“Bye Jack!” said Errol. “Don’t be a stranger!” 

“I won’t!”

Read this story. Police Commissioner Toorenaar and I have urged the Dutch authorities ever since the early 1980s to legalize drugs and to decriminalize individual drug users. And finally, thirty years later, people like Kofi Anan and Richard Branson agree with us. It’s about fucking time!


About Jack Vanderwyk

Hey! What am I like! :-)
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