With 3,000 customers a day, a restaurant, ample parking and turnover of €26 million a year, Checkpoint cafe, the largest cannabis-selling coffee shop in the Netherlands, was a fabulous commercial success.
That was until it was closed down in 2009 for testing to the limits what the Dutch describe as their gedoogbeleid, or (tolerance policy) under which prosecutors turn a blind eye to the breaking of certain laws, including in the business of selling cannabis.
On Tuesday, an appeals court ruled that the cafe's owner, Meddie Willemsen, was guilty of running a criminal enterprise, but said he will not face any punishment.
The ruling highlighted what the president of the court in Den Bosch described as “paradoxes” in the Dutch approach to so-called soft drugs.
Licensed coffee shops are allowed to sell cannabis from their premises, but can keep only 500g on site at any time. Production of the drug is illegal.
When Checkpoint was at its peak, Mr Willemsen (66) was regularly keeping about 200kg of cannabis on his large premises in Terneuzen, near the Belgian border. The size of the enterprise could have led to fairly reasonable assumptions that those providing the drugs would be large criminal gangs.
Prosecutors were informed by the court that while Checkpoint cafe was certainly criminal, local authorities had effectively aided it at times and turned a blind eye for long enough that punishment of the owner would be inappropriate.
The court heard the illegal activity was necessary for a cafe of Checkpoint’s size. The president ruled: “That is punishable. But at the same time not to be avoided when you run a well-functioning coffee shop.”
Following a raid, Mr Willemsen was sentenced in 2010 to 16 weeks in prison and fined €10 million for keeping more than the maximum tolerated amount of drugs on site.
But the court said while the cafe had broken the law, the sentences should be struck out. Reacting to the verdict, Mr Willemsen told reporters: “I had actually expected acquittal.”
Checkpoint cafe had been the largest cannabis-selling coffee shop in the Netherlands by some margin, with half of its sales going to French visitors and about 40 per cent to Belgians.
It was the scale of the sales to foreign visitors and the arrival of a new prosecutor in the area that prompted the public prosector’s office to intervene and bring criminal charges.
The president of the court in Den Bosch said the story of Checkpoint cafe highlighted the absurdity of the law in the Netherlands, where selling cannabis at the front of the shop is legal, under strict criteria, but production and sourcing of it at the back is illegal. “Here lies a task for the legislator,” the president said.
In 2012, the Dutch government changed the law to criminalise sales by coffee shops to customers who cannot prove they live in the Netherlands. There is a dispensation for people in Amsterdam, on the grounds that the practice is part of the attraction for tourists visiting the city.
Mr Willemsen’s case has been bouncing between appeal courts and the supreme court, which has repeatedly rejected rulings that the punishment is not appropriate.
Speaking ahead of the latest hearing, Mr Willemsen confirmed that business had been so good at its peak he struggled to keep up with demand.
“Nobody wants to believe it, but it was not for me to make the money,” he said. “I just wanted to create the most beautiful coffee shop that existed.” – Guardian service