Gerd Leers, the mayor of the Dutch market town of Maastricht, is taking action to deal with the overflow influx of drug tourists coming across the nearby Belgian and German borders to buy marijuana in Holland's famous cannabis coffee shops. Despite complaints from the Belgian government, Leers announced Tuesday that he wants to move seven of the city's 15 coffee houses from the city center to the border, the Netherlands Info Service reported.
Leers is calling his scheme "Coffee Corner," but locals are speaking of "cannabis boulevards," each with two or three coffee houses. Leers is acting to reduce complaints about congestion and crime related to foreign coffee house visitors and is following the example of the border town of Venlo, which earlier moved two of its coffee houses from downtown to the border. Venlo's mayor reports that while traffic downtown decreased, the move resulted in an overall increase in the number of drug tourists.
Belgian authorities are not happy and have warned against the move. Just last week, Belgian officials threatened to place cameras along the border and capture the license plate numbers of vehicles of visiting drug tourists. They did not explain how they would know which vehicles carried people intending to buy pot in Holland.
Despite Belgium's 2005 move to make possession of less than three grams of marijuana a non-arrestable offence in most cases, Belgian officials say moving the coffee shops to the border will thwart what they describe as their zero-tolerance policy. And because people move freely within the European Union, Belgian border towns like Lanaken are likely to see coffee houses just across the street.
"I have a good understanding with Mayor Leers, except when it comes to soft drugs," Lanaken's mayor, Alex Vangronsveld, complained to Reuters last week. "We in Lanaken maintain a zero-tolerance policy. The dispersal plan is not acceptable to us, as Maastricht already has 4,500 drug tourists a day."
Dutch police were not unsympathetic. "Their fears are legitimate," said Peter Tans, the police spokesman for south Limburg, the Dutch region that includes Maastricht. "Experience has shown that when you move the coffee shop the problem moves, too, and crime levels where the coffee shop used to be drop dramatically. But we say to the Belgians: 'These are your customers; keep them in your country.'"