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Germany Wary of Dutch Dope Debate

DW staff / AFP (nda)April 27, 2005

A new cannabis debate lit up in the Netherlands Wednesday as the country's largest cities called for production of the drug to be legalized. Such a move is likely to further frustrate neighbor Germany.

Thirty of Holland's biggest cities are in favor of legal cannabis productionImage: AP

A telephone poll of the 30 biggest cities in the Netherlands published in the Trouw daily showed that a majority of the cities are in favor of legalizing, under strict conditions, the production of cannabis.

Despite the growing call from local authorities, the government stood firm on its stricter policy towards soft drugs, in a country where cannabis use and sale have been decriminalized for three decades.

"If we are having problems because of our liberal drugs policy than somebody should explain to me how these problems are going to go away if we go even further with our liberal policies," Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner said during a parliamentary debate on Wednesday.

During the debate, several parties including the opposition Labour party called for the government to regulate cannabis production. Even the parliamentary faction of the governing VVD liberal party called for a legalization of cannabis production within the European Union.

Legal production a lure for German smokers?

Even raising the debate to parliamentary level is likely to further frustrate neighbor Germany which continues to struggle with the amount of German citizens crossing the border for the sole purpose of getting legally stoned.

Otto Schily Galerie deutsche Politiker
Otto SchilyImage: AP

German Interior Minister Otto Schily has often clashed with Donner over the subject of the Dutch coffee shops, establishments which legally sell cannabis and other so-called soft drugs over the counter.

Schily, a vehement opponent of the Dutch attitude to soft drugs, has urged his counterpart to close the coffee shops, saying that the sale of any drugs advocated their use. And while there has been ground given on the subject of joint police patrols along the two countries’ shared border in a bid to combat drug trafficking and the possible sale of cannabis to Dutch nationals only, there is still conflict over the Dutch attitude on its own soil and its consequences.

Dutch say Germans should mind their own

But Donner argues that the Dutch drug policy and the existence of coffee shops offered Dutch authorities an opportunity to keep a close check on drug use. “Even though I understand the German opinion on the question of coffee shops, I must say that it is a question for the Dutch and not a problem for our neighbors,” he said at a heated summit with Schily in Berlin in 2003.

Cannabis Festival in Holland
Image: AP

Since 1976, the Netherlands have decriminalized the sale and use of cannabis in so called coffee-shops. A typically Dutch invention, these special cafes are authorized to sell up to five grams (one sixth of an ounce) of cannabis to people over 18. Production of cannabis remains illegal as do hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.

Any moves to decriminalize the production of cannabis in the Netherlands is likely to cause further friction with Schily unlikely to shift on his stance that the availability of drugs in Holland promotes drug tourism among Germans and, on a wider scale, encourages the illegal drug trade in Europe.

Regulation would solve legal problems, say mayors

The mayors of the major Dutch cities, including Maastricht and Amsterdam, argue that a regulated production of cannabis would solve many of the problems connected with illegal cannabis plantations, the main source for the underworld trade.

"The drugs policy is schizophrenic because although it is legal for coffee-shops to sell cannabis, the production is illegal. It is like telling a baker that he can sell bread but is not allowed to buy flour," Maastricht mayor Christian Democrat Gerd Leers told AFP recently.

Cannabis Freedom Festival
Image: AP

Dutch border towns like Maastricht and Heerlen receive over a million so-called drugs tourists each year. These tourists, mostly from France, Belgium and Germany, come to the Netherlands to buy cannabis.

To combat illegal cannabis plantations in people's attics and basements, the mayors call for a regulated and controlled production of cannabis for sale in coffee-shops.

Legal production will not cure ills, says Donner

But Donner dismissed the argument, saying that the legalization of cannabis production would solve neither the problems of drugs tourism or of illegal growing. "How will we get one drugs tourist less by regulating cannabis production for sale in coffee-shops?" Donner asked the parliament.

Touristenschiff unter Grachtenbrücke der Prinsengracht in Amsterdam
Amsterdam is the main attraction for European drug touristsImage: Illuscope

Moreover, he argued, illegal cannabis plantations in Maastricht alone grow more drugs than are consumed in the city's coffee-shops. "Regulating the cultivation for coffee-shops will barely have a noticeable effect on the existing illegal production," Donner said in a letter sent to parliament Wednesday.

Although the government wants to uphold the Dutch model that distinguishes between the soft drug, cannabis, which it says poses limited health risks and hard drugs, which pose "unacceptable risks", it wants to curtail drugs tourism.

Donner is also in favor of a reduction of the number of coffee-shops which already fell from 1179 in 1997, to 754 in 2003. According to the Dutch justice ministry, citing scientific research, the existence of coffee-shops has not led to a rise in cannabis consumption. Cannabis consumption among people aged 15 to 65 is lower in the Netherlands than in France, Britain or the United States.