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CLERIC TAKES DRUG POLICY TO THE LIMIT

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The Netherlands is famous for its tolerant attitude toward drug use, but many Dutch people think the Rev. Hans Visser has gone too far.

He has invited drug pushers to sell heroin and crack cocaine in his Rotterdam church."Many people may think I'm wrong, but in private lots of others, including the police and local government, agree with me," Visser told Reuters in an interview.

Visser's church, the Dutch Protestant Pauluskerk in the center of the port, has been a day center for hard drug users for 15 years. Drug use at the center has been officially tolerated since 1990, but dealing was always banned.

"Where there are drug users there will always be dealers, and we were having increasing problems with dealers coming in and making trouble," Visser said. "So I said `OK. You can work here, but no violence and don't mix the drugs with dangerous chemicals.' And, in the main, the strategy is working."

Visser asked two drug dealers to sell heroin and crack cocaine in the church and accepted a contribution of $27 to $54 each week that was last week paid to tax authorities.

He has no direct contact with the drugs and leaves the regulation of sales and quality to the dealers. Drugs are sold at street prices of about $43.25 per gram for heroin and $67.57 for crack cocaine.

"I don't receive money for the drugs, and I don't intervene in their business or I would be regarded by the street mafia as the big boss," Visser said. "That would be much too dangerous."

The Netherlands' official drug policy, introduced in 1976, is based on treating addiction as a medical problem rather than a crime. While all drugs are technically illegal, special "coffee shops" are allowed to sell hashish and marijuana, and police rarely prosecute drug users.

The approach aims to bring drug users out into the open, and the government claims success. While hard drug use is rising in many European countries, the number of addicts in the Netherlands has stabilized at around 20,000 in a population of 15 million.