After European Union justice ministers announced an agreement on a common cross-border drug policy, the Netherlands exposed a clause in the rules by exercising its right to keep its "coffee shops" open.
As ministers agreed on tough new anti-drug measures, the Dutch took it all in stride.
In a step towards harmonizing national laws within the European Union and streamlining the fight against illegal drugs, EU justice ministers agreed on a new set of rules on Thursday after more than two years of negotiations.
However, due to a clause which allows member states to exempt individuals from criminal liability, the Netherlands was able to announce that its controversial "coffee shops" would survive.
"On personal consumption, each country will be free to regulate as it regards appropriate," said Italy's justice minister, Roberto Castelli, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency. The Dutch seized on this to declare that the smokers' sanctuaries would not be closed down.
It was a slightly embarrassing turn of events after ministers heralded the agreement as a new dawn for EU drug enforcement and the end to the bickering between member states, particularly the long-running dispute between the Dutch and France and Sweden, which have long opposed attitudes in the Netherlands toward "soft" drugs like cannabis and hash.
France and Sweden opposed Dutch approach
Paris and Stockholm had campaigned for tougher jail terms for minor offences, a move which came up against Dutch opposition mainly due to the country's policy of tolerating the use and sale of soft drugs. Sweden had also demanded the closure of the coffee shops, where people for over 30 years have been able to buy and smoke cannabis without fearing legal repercussions.
"We have a situation where in certain conditions we will not prosecute and these conditions are kept very strictly," Dutch justice minister Piet Hein Donner told reporters. "This decision does not cover that policy."
But he added that the Netherlands had agreed to increase its penalties for the possession of small quantities of soft drugs from one month to a year in those circumstances which carried a sentence.
Plans to restrict shops to locals
Although remaining firm that the coffee shops would remain open, Donner made some concessions. Among them was the annoucement that the Dutch government would continue with its plans to restrict coffee shop owners from selling soft drugs to non-residents in a bid to halt drug tourism in Holland.
Despite the Dutch commitment to keeping the coffee shops open, those present were relieved to have reached agreement on the range of new laws which will cover all types of drug dealing, ranging from local networks to large-scale international operations.
"Europe has now equipped itself with an instrument to combat drug trafficking," Italy’s Castelli said, beaming with weary satisfaction after having admitted earlier that it would be extremely difficult to achieve consensus.
Longer jail terms
Under the agreed rules, offering, selling or producing drugs should be sanctioned with maximum jail terms of at least one to three years if individuals are caught producing or distributing drugs or cultivating opium poppies, coca bush or cannabis plants. In cases involving large-scale international drug trafficking, jail terms should be at least five to 10 years, according to the agreement.
New threat from expansion
Many in the EU say such an agreement is needed in view of the bloc's eastern expansion in 2004. While the EU's drug monitoring agency in Lisbon reports that drug use inside the EU has been stabilizing after years of sharp increases, drug use has been rising in the 10 countries in central and Eastern Europe which will join the bloc next May.
Cnce considered simply transit areas for the movement of drugs to the EU, after accession the new member states will present traffickers with new and more lucrative markets.
EU justice ministers say they hope that the severity of the new rules as well as the cross-border cooperation and harmonization will help combat the new threat and suppress the old.
The agreed rules will now be passed to the European Parliament for discussion. If agreed upon there, the laws will enter into force 18 months after being formally approved by ministers.