Netherlands moves away from liberal line on smoking cannabis
IS THE Netherlands finally growing up, or is it committing tourism suicide? A ban on foreigners using its famous “coffee shops” – where soft drugs can be bought and consumed legally – came into effect in its three southern provinces yesterday, and will apply in the rest of the country, including Amsterdam, from January 1st, 2013.
The new year’s law – which aims to change forever the Netherlands’s image as all but indifferent to the social impact of drugs such as cannabis and hashish – applies immediately in the provinces of Limburg, North-Brabant and Zeeland, though it will not be enforced by local police until May 1st.
Those provinces, bordering Germany, France and Belgium, are the locations outside the capital where so-called “drug tourism” is busiest.
Controversially, there will be an exemption for German and Belgian customers, but not for the Netherlands’ French neighbours – a questionable distinction which could still face a legal challenge.
“I just can’t see how the Netherlands can allow people like me and other Germans and Belgians to continue to come here to visit these coffee shops, while saying to the French and other EU nationals that they cannot use them,” Dieter Weibezahl (24), a law student from Berlin, told The Irish Times.
“It should be all or nothing. The Netherlands’ image has always been that it allowed soft drugs to be used in a regulated way so that they did not become part of the criminal underworld, with huge profits and often dangerous quality. It will be bad if that disappears.”
Busiest of all up to now were the 13 coffee shops in the centre of Maastricht, the provincial capital of Limburg, which took unilateral action and introduced the ban from October 1st.
Typically, about 70 per cent of those using the city’s coffee shops have been foreigners – as many as 6,000 a day at the peak of the summer season – leading to complaints from some businesses about rowdyism and damage to its city’s tourism image. However, local coffee shop owners warn city hall not to underestimate the economic impact. They say their business is already down 16 per cent – an annual drop in income of about €41 million, the equivalent, they maintain, of the city losing 345 full-time jobs.
“Yes, banning non-Dutch nationals is discrimination and I am really ashamed about it,” says Marc Josemans, owner of the Easy Going coffee shop in Maastricht and longtime spokesman for the Society of United Coffee Shops, who claims the ban is part of a right-wing political agenda to abolish the drug cafes altogether.
“By accepting this ban we are adopting the attitude that it is better to cut off one finger ourselves than to allow a whole hand to be cut off by our enemy.” By “our enemy”, he means justice minister Ivo Opstelten.
Not surprisingly, Dutch customers are generally quite happy about the ban.
“Sometimes the crowds here have been crazy,” says Bas van der Wal (37), on the street outside. “If there are not so many foreigners, the atmosphere will be better and more relaxed for us locals.”
Arno Folmer (40) from Apeldoorn says: “Foreigners come here not just because they can get drugs legally but because they can get good-quality drugs at a cheap price. The problem is that a lot of them end up out of control. They think because they can smoke, they can do anything.”
Under the new regulations, coffee shops will be considered private clubs, allowed to have a maximum of 2,000 members each, limited to Dutch residents aged over 18 – each of whom will require a “dope card”.
Unusually, opposition to the ban on foreigners has led to an alliance between the coffee shop owners and tourism interests – both of whom claim it will be counterproductive.
A spokesman for I Amsterdam, a tourism consortium, summed up perhaps the greatest misgiving: “Statistics show that 23 per cent of visitors to Amsterdam try out our coffee shops, and if that business is forced underground, illegal drug dealing on the streets will simply increase all over again.”