Verdict to decide fate of Dutch cannabis coffee shops | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 28.06.2011

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Verdict to decide fate of Dutch cannabis coffee shops

The Netherlands is renowned for its tolerance towards use of cannabis. However the government is signaling a change of policy, as it aims to clamp down on so-called "drugs-tourism" and ban foreigners from coffee shops.

Man smoking cannabis joint

Europe has an estimated 23 million cannabis users

The coffee shops of Maastricht do a roaring trade with foreign visitors, accounting for an estimated three-quarters of all custom. Just a kilometer from the Belgian border and convenient for nearby Germany, the city's geographic position has made it a highly attractive place to pop across the border to buy cannabis.

However the Dutch government is keen to crack down on this kind of "drugs tourism." The Dutch executive announced earlier this year that they wanted coffee shops to become private members clubs, only open to the local market. This would mean only Dutch nationals could become members and legally purchase cannabis.

Marc Josemans in his coffeeshop

Marc Josemans runs the Easy Going coffee shop

Maastricht coffee shop owners have defied the ban, pending the result of an appeal to the Council of State which is due to be decided Wednesday.

Marc Josemans owns the coffee shop Easy Going, which is located on a side street in Maastricht's bustling town centre. He opened the coffee shop in 1983 and says he refuses to ban foreigners as it is "discrimination" and "against Article 1 of the Dutch constitution."

The decision to restrict coffee shops to members follows a ruling in December 2010 in which the highest Dutch court, the Council of State, said that the City of Maastricht was within its rights to ban foreigners from its coffee shops, due to "nuisance" caused by border-hopping foreigners buying cannabis. The decision was made with advice from the European Court of Justice.

Defying the ban

Behind the selling hatches at coffeeshop Easy Going

The selling of marijuana is strictly regulated and taxed

Josemans argues that coffee shops in the Netherlands provide a "safe place" for people from across Europe and the world to smoke cannabis. The quality of drug is controlled, the product is taxed and people can smoke it away without pressure from drug dealers and hustlers.

"We can prove that our system works, it's much better than just saying no. Of course people will still use drugs, it always has been like that, it always will," Josemans told Deutsche Welle.

Boosting the black market

The Dutch Minister for Security and Justice Ivo Opstelten believes that introducing a membership card system for purchasing cannabis will prevent foreign visitors from disrupting public order.

In a statement, the Ministry of Security and Justice said these tourists can return to "use the illegal markets available in their immediate surroundings."

Josemans, who is leader of the union of coffee shop owners in Maastricht, believes customers will still come to the Netherlands and it will only push cannabis dealing underground.

ID scanning machine

ID is scanned on the way into the coffee shop to check users are over 18

"Local youths will go into the local coffee shop, buy the maximum five grams and start re-selling it to the tourists in the street. So you'll get a lot of extra nuisance in the street, a lot of extra problems," said Josemans.

Josemans estimates that 74 percent of his business comes from foreigners and to cut them out would be "tourism suicide" both for coffee shops and the city as a whole.

The staff in Easy Going are used to dealing with people from different countries and easily switch between Dutch, French, German and English.

Coffee shop culture may be a huge draw for some visitors but Joseman claims the city's 2.1 million visitors "spend more money out of the coffee shop than in it."

Backwards step?

As other European countries, including Spain and Portugal, relax their rules on smoking and possessing cannabis, the Dutch center-right government appears to be going the opposite way.

Sign outside a coffeeshop in four languages

Signs outside coffee shops in Maastricht are printed in several languages

Stricter rules on the amount of cannabis held on site at coffee shops, as well as frequent checks that drugs are not sold to those under 18, are just some of the measures the government has put in place.

Coffee shop owner Josemans suggests the center-right government is "ashamed of [its] own drugs policy."

"The government are not too fond of coffee shops," he added.

This negative influence can be seen from the number of coffee shops in the Netherlands, which has dwindled from around 1500 to 630, with numbers still dropping.

The cultivation, transportation and possession of cannabis is still illegal in the Netherlands, causing many within the business to question whether the whole drugs policy in the Netherlands needs to be examined more closely.

Author: Catherine Bolsover, Maastricht
Editor: Michael Lawton

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