No weed pass, no cannabis, Dutch tell tourists

By Jerome Taylor

For more than 30 years, tourists have flocked to the Netherlands to indulge in a legal high, but the free-wheeling dope days may soon be over if the country's new centre-right coalition government has its way. Photo / Thinkstock
For more than 30 years, tourists have flocked to the Netherlands to indulge in a legal high, but the free-wheeling dope days may soon be over if the country's new centre-right coalition government has its way. Photo / Thinkstock

A frozen afternoon in the Dutch city of Maastricht and the winter market on the banks of the river Meuse fills the air with festive aromas of spiced wine, waffles and grilled sausages.

It's exactly the kind of attraction that you would expect tourists to flock to. But the stalls are eerily quiet.

In this cobblestoned corner of the Netherlands, most international visitors are after a different sort of scent and you don't have to walk far to find it.

Just behind the market, a few hundred yards from the riverbank, is Easy Going Coffee Shop, one of 14 premises in a town of 120,000 people that are licensed to sell cannabis.

Even in the middle of the week, business is booming as a long line of day trippers queue up to buy bags with such names as Amnesia, Pollem Gold and White Widow.

For more than 30 years, tourists have flocked to the Netherlands to indulge in a legal high. An estimated two million Britons visit Amsterdam each year, with many peeling off to sample some of the pungent goods inside one of the city's ubiquitous coffee shops.

Border cities, meanwhile, can expect as many as three-quarters of their regulars to be foreign. Maastricht alone receives 2.1 million drug tourists a year.

But the free-wheeling dope days may soon be over if the Netherlands' new centre-right coalition government has its way.

Following growing complaints of rising crime in the country's border towns, the government has signalled its intention to ban foreigners from buying cannabis.

Tomorrow, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will decide whether such a ban is permissible under EU law, whose free-trade rules forbid discriminating against purchasers on the grounds of nationality.

The Dutch justice minister Ivo Opstelten is confident the ECJ will allow the ban by accepting the Dutch government's argument that drugs are not subject to the same rules as legal goods.

He has already announced a plan to turn the country's 700 coffee houses into private members' clubs, effectively rendering them out of bounds for foreigners.

Under the proposed legislation, only those with a registered "wietpassen", or weed pass, would be allowed to buy cannabis.

Coffee-shop owners say they will fight the plan and claim any attempt to crack down on the legal sale of cannabis will simply force people into the hands of criminals.

"People have been using drugs for 5000 years and they will continue to do so," says Marc Josemans, the 50-year-old owner of Easy Going Coffee Shop who is leading a court challenge against any ban on foreigners buying cannabis.

"The question is, do you want people to use a soft drug like cannabis in a controlled environment where the whole system is transparent, or do you want to increase the repression and force people to buy from criminal networks where hard and soft drugs are sold in the same room?"

For such day trippers as David and Patrick, two British students studying in Belgium, the "weed pass" would end trips across the border to smuggle stocks back to their student digs.

"It would change the entire way I view Holland," said David, who declined to give his surname.

"It would turn back all the progressive work the Dutch have done on drugs," added Patrick.

"Pot tourists don't do anything wrong and if they ban it, we'll simply have to buy from regular dealers back in Belgium".

There have been stricter licensing rules introduced during the past decade and the number of Dutch licensed premises has almost halved from 1200 to less than 700. Coffee shops such as Easy Going, for instance, already take digital copies of customers' IDs and store them for 48 hours.

But following a spate of drug-related murders last month, the coalition government is pushing ahead with its plans to bring in the pass system.

The drug-related violence stems from the grey status of cannabis in Dutch law: its production is still forbidden, but the sale of five grams or less is permitted in licensed coffee shops, whose owners are forced to buy from the same criminal armed networks which supply the hard-drugs market.

Last month violence erupted across Brabant, a densely populated southern state and a traditional heartland for cannabis growers.

Two people from Eindhoven were shot dead in alleged drug hits - one of the victims' bodies was found in the trunk of a burnt-out Mercedes; the other was shot in the head eight times.

A suburban house was also sprayed with more than 100 bullets in a gun attack.

In the nearby city of Helmond, a new coffee shop was gutted in a grenade attack, while Jacob Fons, the town's mayor, has gone into hiding because of death threats.

"He has been threatened in such a manner that he can no longer live in his house and has to have a bodyguard to keep him safe," said Johan Beelen, Mr Fons' press secretary.

Although some coffee-shop owners say those killed were involved in the hard-drugs trade, not cannabis production, the police in Brabant are convinced there is a direct connection to the pot market.

"We are under the impression that [the recent violence] is about cannabis because cannabis is hot stuff at the moment," says Henri van Pinxteren, a spokesman for Brabant's police force.

"A lot of cannabis is grown in the area and it's not just for the Dutch market. It goes out to France, Germany, Belgium and the UK. It's profitable for criminals and they fight over it."

The government's answer has been to fast-track weed passes for the Brabant area as a test case to see whether the system can be rolled out across the country.

Only those registered locally will be allowed to buy cannabis, meaning anyone from out of town - including foreigners - will be refused entry to the clubs.

The government says the passes will help police get a grip on drug-related crimes. But critics say such measures will do little to curb the violence and will force people further into the arms of the criminal gangs that are responsible for the shootings.

"Around 75 per cent of towns and villages in the Netherlands have no coffee shops and people have to travel to the larger towns to find one," says Nicole Maalste, a criminologist at the University of Tilburg's law school who has written extensively on the drugs trade in the Netherlands.

"If you start bringing in a system where you only allow locals to access the coffee shops, what will happen to that 75 per cent? They will have no choice but to go to the criminal backdoor networks."

Sitting in the office above his coffee shop, a joint in hand, Mr Josemans knows he has a fight on his hands.

"Politicians have come at us before, but never like this," he says.

"I just hope they're thinking about the long-term future, not just looking for a quick way to win quick votes."

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