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Up in smoke

June 29, 2011

The closure of a coffee shop that sold cannabis to foreign visitors has been deemed unlawful by the top Dutch court. However, the court's decision hinted there would be legal grounds for a change to the law in future.

marijuana plant
The Netherlands is trying to reduce drug tourismImage: Fotofinder

The top court in the Netherlands has ruled that coffee shops - where you are legally allowed to buy and smoke cannabis - can remain open to foreign nationals.

The test case was that of Maastricht coffee shop Easy Going which was closed temporarily in 2006 by the mayor of the city after it allowed foreigners to enter and consume marijuana. The mayor said this was forbidden by a local bylaw.

On Wednesday, the Dutch Council of State said this bylaw contravened the Opium Act and was therefore unlawful.

Victory for coffee shops?

The court case was a big victory for Easy Going's owner Marc Josemans, who has been battling the authorities on this issue for more than eight years.

Josemans is leader of the local union for coffee shop owners in Maastricht, where around three-quarters of business comes from tourists from nearby Belgium and Germany.

Josemans took his case to court because he was "confident" that the Dutch court would support him.

"Coffee shops are not a problem, that has been proven," said Josemans. "Coffee shops serve a function in the community, they pay a lot of taxes and they are frontline soldiers in the war against hard drugs."

Marc Josemans in his coffeeshop
Marc Josemans' coffee shop was at the center of the rowImage: DW

However, the case is not a clear-cut victory for the coffee shops. In the statement announcing the verdict, the Council of State said excluding certain customers due to their nationality would be "compatible" with both Dutch and European law.

The statement said although it infringes on the European law on the freedom to provide services, it is "permissible in the interests of combating drug tourism and the nuisance associated with it." This is in line with a December ruling from the European Court of Justice, meaning that banning foreigners from coffee shops in future would not be unconstitutional.

Tighter restrictions

This legal leeway comes as the center-right government in the Netherlands looks to introduce stricter regulations on coffee shops in order to reduce drug tourism.

Ivo Opstelten, minister for security and justice, has announced plans to introduce a nationwide membership scheme for coffee shops, commonly known as the "weed pass." This would make coffee shops members-only, with membership restricted to those carrying Dutch passports.

The idea has already passed the Dutch lower house of parliament and Opstelten wants the policy to be rolled out in border towns and municipalities.

But there are concerns that the introduction of such a weed pass would be unworkable, and would only serve to push drug dealing onto the black market.

"It means all the tourists that come to Maastricht will just buy their products on the illegal circuit," said Josemans. "So actually, our government is providing good jobs for criminals."

Josemans and other coffee shop owners have called on the government to sit down with them and come to some kind of mutual agreement to improve the current drug policy.

"This kind of firm politics gets us nowhere and only makes the problem worse," said Josemans.

Author: Catherine Bolsover
Editor: Martin Kuebler