Dutch-Only Cannabis Coffee Shop Policy Meets Resistance [FEATURE]

A Dutch government policy aimed at barring foreign tourists from buying marijuana in the Netherlands went into effect in three southern border provinces Tuesday, but it didn't go exactly as authorities planned.

Amsterdam cannabis "coffee shop" (wikimedia.org)
In the southern border city of Maastricht, hundreds of demonstrators filled a central square to protest the move, waving signs saying "Away with the Weed Pass," "No Discrimination Against Belgians," and "Dealers Wanted!" and toting a six-foot long joint. Meanwhile, cannabis coffee shop owners across the city closed their doors to protest the imposition of the scheme, leaving the city's mayor ruffled and pot-buyers to seek out street dealers.

The weed pass plan is the brainchild of the rightist Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition government, which collapsed last month. But the Dutch parliament had already approved the plan, and it is still scheduled to go into effect nationwide beginning January 1.

Under the weed pass plan, cannabis coffee shops will be forced to become "members only" clubs, with membership limited to 2,000 people per club. Members must register their identities, and only Dutch citizens and residents will be allowed to join the clubs.

Marijuana remains illegal in the Netherlands, but under a policy of pragmatic tolerance in effect since 1976, the Dutch government has allowed for the sale of small amounts of marijuana through the coffee shops. The current lame duck government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, playing to its conservative base, has moved against the coffee shops as part of a broader anti-drug campaign that has also seen it label hashish a "hard drug" and move to criminalize khat, which is used almost exclusively by the country's small Somali immigrant population.

The weed pass plan is now in effect in the provinces of Brabant, Limburg, and Zeeland, which border Belgium and/or Germany. Reuters reported that most coffee shops in cities such as Eindhoven, Roermond, and Tilburg were also shut, or were ignoring the weed pass.

"We've been selling cannabis to anybody who comes, as normal," said William Vugs, owner of the 't Oermelijn coffee shop in Tilburg. "We are being forced to discriminate against foreigners. They don't just spend their money here, they buy groceries and fill up their cars, too," he said.

Vugs said his shop served 800 customers a day, about one-fifth of them from Belgium. Turning them away would have economic consequences beyond the coffee shops, he said.

Vugs is one of the coffee shop owners who hopes to block the weed pass in court by arguing that it is discriminatory. That's the plan concocted by the Maastricht Coffee Shop Union (VOCM), which announced in a press release Monday that it would challenge the law in court.

"Too much is still unclear about the privacy concerns, but also on the exact requirements of the minister, said VOCM leader Marc Josemans, owner of the Easy Going coffee shop in Maastricht. "Therefore we will not register customers and will continue to sell to anyone aged 18 and older who can identify himself. "

Instead, in a surprise move, the city's coffee shops closed their doors -- except for Easy Going. Josemans opened long enough to refuse to sell pot to a group of foreigners, who then proceeded to a local police station to file a discrimination complaint. Such complaints will be the basis of the looming legal challenge to the weed pass.

Josemans then stayed open, selling marijuana to anyone who asked for it, and local police arrived shortly.

"The police paid me a visit about a half an hour later and warned me I was violating the new rules, and if I do it again, I'll be closed down for a month," he said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. But he added that he planned to continue selling to all comers and that he expected his shop to be shut down. He would then take his case to the European Court of Justice, he said. "Discrimination is never the right answer,"Joseman said.

Previous efforts to overturn the law, both in the Dutch courts and the European Court of Justice, have failed, but the coffee shop owners and their supporters are determined to try again.

Tuesday also saw competing press conferences in Maastricht, with the mayor and city officials at one and coffee shop supporters at the other, held in front of Easy Going.

Maastricht Mayor Onno Hoes said the city supported the weed pass plan and that the coffee shop owners were "rude" to close their doors. "I did not think the owners would be so cheeky," he complained. "By doing this, they are hurting the local population."

But not the street drug dealers, who, according to the VOCM, are flocking to the city to take advantage of the ban on sales to foreigners.

"Maastricht is now faced with drug runners who have never been spotted in the city before, coming from Liege, eastern Europe and northern France," the group said. "They are using flyers explaining the new rules that were issued by the city of Maastricht in order to lure tourists! Thus we are rapidly returning to a long gone past where a separation of markets for cannabis and hard drugs did not exist and dealers controlled the streets."

Former head of the Netherlands Police Union Hans van Duijn echoed that sentiment at the press conference in front of Easy Going. "Everyone who is rejected here will walk a few meters down the street to the drug dealers who drive over from Rotterdam, among other places, and ride around in large numbers," he said.

The primary reasons the Dutch adopted the pragmatic tolerance policy allowing for the coffee shops were to separate "soft" and "hard" drug markets and to reduce the number of street dealers. But it appears the weed pass policy will have the opposite effect.

"This weed pass is a bizarre U-turn by a government of moralistic politicians looking for ways to score points among the conservative part of the nation," said Joep Oomen, director of the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) from his home next door in Belgium. "It is a slap in the face of the millions of non-Dutch residents who visit the coffee shops every year without ever causing any nuisance, as well as of Dutch society as a whole, that will now be faced with an increasing illegal cannabis circuit."

Oomen noted that street dealers in Maastricht Tuesday were openly defying authorities by giving interviews on Dutch TV.

"Nobody expects that people looking for good quality cannabis will now cease to do that," he continued. "They will just not be allowed in the coffee shops anymore and will instead find their stuff on the streets."

For ENCOD, the weed pass plan is a repressive last gasp that could have unintended consequences, good as well as bad.

"We consider this as a last convulsion of a dying body," Oomen said. "The problems that this effort to end the coffee shop model will create will cause the Dutch public to see that the only real solution is to regulate the 'back door' of the coffee shops."

Oomen was referring to the peculiarity in the current Dutch system which allows for marijuana to be sold, but does not allow for a legal supply for the coffee shops. That has resulted in increasing black market pot production.

The issue of the "back door" was also on Joseman's mind.

"Let's forget this right wing hobby and focus on the real problem -- the 'back door,'" he said. "This is the Achilles heel of Dutch cannabis policy. When we finally start to regulate the cultivation of cannabis and supply to the coffee shops, we will kill three birds with one stone: significantly less crime, huge profits for public health, and one billion euros a year extra in the national treasury."

But first, the coffee shops have to deal with their current "front door" problem. The looming court cases are one avenue, but the September elections set to replace the current government provide another one.

"Our hope is on the outcome of the trial processes that have started today in Maastricht and Tilburg by the closure of the coffee shops that refuse to carry out the new measure, and on the general elections in September," said Oomen. "Predictions are that at least two of the five left-wing parties that are currently in opposition will participate in the next government, and they will cancel the new measures or at least diminish their impact."

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Incriminating Yourself

Since it's still illegal, wouldn't registering with a coffee shop be self incrimination?

self incrimination

You bet it's self incrimination! According to right-wing Dutch Minister of Justice Ivo Opstelten (VVD Libertarian party), a coffeeshop is a "criminal organization". If you join a coffeeshop, which is now a "closed club" with a maximum of 2000 members, your personal information is turned over to police, as is required by law. Then you're registered in a police dossier as a "drug user". Who in his right mind wants to do that?

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Really crazy to ban khat. It's the best sociallising drug of all. It makes you talk and talk. Should be served in parliament and all talk shows and parties.

This has nothing to do with

This has nothing to do with khat, it's cannabis that's the issue here.

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Legal alcohol works!

What is with politicians?!! The *only* reason we have legal alcohol is because it causes LESS harm than making it illegal. We *celebrate* this policy because it works!! Legal stores undercut criminal dealers - driving them off the street and making our communities and children SAFER!

Why do they think this same policy should not be applied to marijuana? There is NO logic in what they're doing and NO reason for it except that it complies with their own religious ideology and they think it'll get them reelected. Such a disgrace!! They undermine the safety of OUR children, spend $Billions of OUR tax dollars, arrest hundreds of thousands of US every year and for what gain? After SEVENTY YEARS of this idiotic policy marijuana is everywhere and always will be. Fire them all! We deserve policies based on logic, NOT on the personal agendas of a self-serving bunch of politicians!

You have to ask: are the prohibs REALLY prohibs?

Because what they're doing is going to cause the eventual destruction of prohibition by them getting even crazier than usual?

When it's only ideology, most people don't care. But talk money, and the eyes light up. And that's what's happening right now. The money's talking, the ideology is walking. And the goofy Dutch pols have only themselves to blame for the crime swell that's about to take place there.

And...I've been to Noord Brabant and Limburgh Provinces, and there's damn little there for most tourists to see. The vast majority of visitors are there for only one thing. And that's now verboten. Those Provinces might as well have slit their own throats...

More Harm than Good

Just like prohibition of alcohol in America, its caused more harm than good. Same with cannabis, its much safer to regulate legalize and tax. I thought the whole point of dutch coffee shops where to stop people buying from street dealers who sell hard drugs, and it was working well. A big decline in hard drug use, and also less people from Holland smoke cannabis than in the UK. How can that be when its legal? Well in the UK its still demonized and that may spark interest in teenagers looking to rebel. In Holland they destroyed marijuana's forbidden fruit factor so it has become more mundane and normal, nothing to get excited about. Prohibition causes way more harm by jailing innocent cannabis smokers, Recreational or medicinal. The amount of scientific study and evidence pointing towards its medicinal value is staggering shame research gets discouraged. (even though in the south of England is the biggest cannabis factory made legal because the home office granted them a license) 

Good can come of bad

There is hope that some good may come of this as it clearly re-enforces the fact the policy move of 1976 was a move forward and this is now a move backwards. Go the dutch the rest of the world can learn from your example don't throw it away by letting these old goons scrounge back control.
-A hopeful Kiwi :)

windmills and cheese

I am a regular "drug tourist" visiting Holland at least 3 times a year and spend an average of 6000 euro to drive/fly to Holland, hotels, food and drink, activities, as well as  quality weed. I am a hard working, middle aged married man. I have 2 beautiful children that attend school regularly and have good promising futures ahead of them. I go to holland to "chillax" and unwind 

 The knock on effect is spending less on petrol/ airline tickets. Hotels will see a drastic drop in occupancy. restaurants will feel a hard pinch ( mmmm eating after a nice joint).

How many times can you see windmills, clogs and cheese? I mean come on Dutch government, what else have you got that will bring a steady stream of returning tourists? red light prostitutes ( dont fool yourself we have prostitutes in all the world and prolly cheaper too. Besides, being married who needs them.Yes we can buy weed in all the world too but i go to see/ taste and smell new fantastic strains of the same plant. where else in europe can you go and choose what to chill with?

A shot in the foot and wait till there is an influx of gang rivalry to control the underground weed trade. 

Hope for change with the upcoming Dutch elections...

I am a 30 year old American woman who is a married, employed, marijuana legalization supporter and a frequent visitor of Amsterdam along with my husband. There are many things I love about the Netherlands. I love that they help true addicts of hard drugs such as cocaine and heroine instead of calling them criminals and throwing them in prison like they do here in the States. I love that they have safe houses for the homeless and help them find work. I love the tolerance they have for the Gay/Lesbian/Transgender community. I love the melting pot of the city with their diverse mix of nationalities and religions. All are welcome there and all lifestyles are respected. For years I have used the Netherlands as an example for friends, families and co-workers when I describe how I wish our country could be...debt free from the taxation and regulation of soft drugs and safe, government supervised prostitution, tolerance of all human beings,low crime rates and minimal hard drug dealers selling substances that can kill. The Dutch youth do not go crazy when they turn 18 and are allowed to drink and partake in smoking a joint. That is the complete opposite of the youth here in the U.S. I was lucky enough to grow up in a half Greek, half Italian family. We were allowed to drink wine,or any other alcohol for that matter, at a young age. Since we grew up with the attitude that it wasn't a big deal to have a drink, there was not one child in my family that turned 21 (legal drinking age in the States) and went crazy at a bar or club. However, the youth that grow up here, and don't have as tolerant a family as mine, go insane when they turn 21 because they are finally allowed the taboo of alcohol and don't know how to handle the "forbidden fruit". Since soft drugs are not allowed our youth turns to street dealers and more times than not wind up experimenting with hard drugs, or worse, becoming addicts of said hard drugs. I have always looked up to the Dutch for their tolerance. Americans are fighting right now in order to have marijuana legalized. The youth of our nation wants more freedoms and tolerance. The Dutch are lucky enough to have it. As an American who has these hopes for my own country I take great joy in being able to visit the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular, in order to experience the world I hope my country can one day become. It truly saddens me that the Dutch government is turning its back on being such a progressive nation. They have been an inspiration to millions of Americans, including myself, for years. I can only hope that the elections in September will see a party take office that will overturn the "weed pass" bill and continue to set a standard of tolerance that so many people have looked up to for generations.

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