Dutch clampdown on 'drug tourists' could damage the economy
by Justin Stares
In less than two months, Maastricht's famous coffee shops will be off limits to cross-border drug tourists - but some locals are planning to rebel against the Dutch clampdown
A coffee shop owner in the Dutch town of Maastricht is planning to deliberately break a new law banning non-residents from buying marijuana as part of his campaign to prevent the prohibition of the decades-old cross-border soft drugs trade. Marc Josemans, owner of the Easy Going coffee shop and chairman of Maastricht's coffee shop owners' association, says the so-called "weed pass" law - due to come into force in May - will play into the hands of criminal drug dealers.
Together with coffee shop employees and clients - both domestic and foreign - the association will next week make a last ditch appeal against the law, which restricts purchases of marijuana and cannabis to residents of the Netherlands who are registered members of coffee shop clubs. If the appeal fails - as Josemans expects - there will be no alternative, but to flout the law and risk being closed down by the authorities. "If judges rule that it is allowed for the justice minister to bring in this weed pass scheme, we will start selling to non-residents on May 1," Josemans tells PublicServiceEurope.com. He says Maastricht's mayor has already threatened him with a three-month closure, but maintains that any such action would be based on a misreading of previous rulings from the Dutch Council of State and European Court of Justice.
Whereas both courts have ruled that discrimination against non-residents is legal and justified by efforts to reduce drug tourism - Dutch judges laid down a number of conditions, says Josemans. Local authorities "are only allowed to discriminate against non-residents if everything else has already been tried to reduce the nuisance, such as changing the coffee shops' opening hours". In Maastricht, a town close to the border with both Belgium and Germany, these alternatives have not been exhausted - he says. A plan to relocate several coffee shops from the centre of town to the outskirts in order to reduce traffic congestion - one of local residents' most common complaints - has not been put into action. Coffee shop closures therefore look likely to trigger a new court case and claims against the local authorities "for many millions of euros", says the association chairman.
"Those who support this law should be ashamed of themselves," adds Josemans, who refers to his customers as "coffee shop visitors" rather than drug tourists. He continues: "Our customers come here to buy soft drugs, not hard drugs. They spend € 119 million outside the coffee shops on clothing, parking and hotels. Some have been coming here for 30 years. They are decent people who pay their taxes." Cross-border shopping is one of the realities of Europe's common market, he says, adding: "In the Netherlands, we cross the border to fill our cars with petrol because it is cheaper." According to the association, Maastricht last year welcomed around 1.7 million cross-border soft drugs shoppers. Other estimates put the figure as high as four million.
The clampdown, according to Josemans, is the result of a lurch to the right by the Dutch government - triggered by the rise of populists such as Geert Wilders. "Our tradition of tolerance works," he says. "We have the lowest number of drug-related deaths. Tolerance in the Netherlands has been based on the decriminalisation of soft drugs in order to draw a distinction with hard drugs. If you hit the consumers of soft drugs they will go back to the illegal circuit, where there is no distinction. Today they want to put an end to soft drugs, next it will be euthanasia and abortion. Things here are going downhill in a rapid way".
The Netherlands ministry for justice admits tourists from neighbouring countries might turn to illegal pushers if Maastricht is no longer an option. "But this is beyond our jurisdiction," says ministry spokeswoman Charlotte Menten. "All we are doing is banning people from outside. If you live in the Netherlands you will still be able to smoke your joint," Menten tells PublicServiceEurope.com. "Drug tourists from France and Belgium cause trouble in Maastricht, and the mayor asked for help with the nuisance. These people were making a mess." She denies claims that Maastricht's drug tourists inject cash into the local economy; they simply buy their weed and leave, Menten says.
Purchases in Maastricht have already been restricted to residents of the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany; a move aimed largely at French tourists, which has already led to a drop in revenues for coffee shop owners of around 20 per cent. May's stricter weed pass law will apply in the southern Dutch provinces of Zeeland, Brabant and Limburg before being extended nationwide in January 2013. Amsterdam, says Menten, is unlike Maastricht in that tourists are interested primarily in sight-seeing. "They might also have a joint," she says, though from next year this will no longer be possible.
Great article. On April 20, we are organising a Amsterdam 420 Smoke-Out against the new repressive regulations of the Dutch government.
Peter Lunk - Haarlem, Netherlands
Amsterdam, says Menten, is unlike Maastricht in that tourists are interested primarily in sight-seeing. "They might also have a joint," she says, though from next year this will no longer be possible. Without the coffee shops, you only need to come to Amsterdam once. I have been there several times over the years and have spent thousands of dollars, but feel no need to come back if the coffee shops are closed to tourists. My money will, unfortunately, be spent somewhere else. That's the reality of the new laws.
SSS - San Diego, California, USA
"She denies claims that Maastricht's drug tourists inject cash into the local economy; they simply buy their weed and leave," Menten says. I find it amazing that common sense is utterly lacking in these comments. The stupidest person in Maastricht knows that cross-border tourism has boosted the profits of businesses such as restaurants, cafes, gas stations, hotels, museums and shops etc. The red flags are being waved, people are screaming and no one is paying attention.
J. Breese - Denver, CO, USA
All that will happen is that instead of people buying their drugs from coffee shops, they will buy them off dealers at a mark up. Instead of getting rid of the market, it will shift into the control of criminal organisations and the associated social problems will get worse, not better.
Ian - Adelaide, Australia