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Dutch tell drug tourists to take trip to Belgium

Justin Stares in Maastricht, The Daily Telegraph, 29th May 2006

To most of the outside world, it is known as the dull Dutch market town where the treaty that created the European Union was signed in 1992. Small wonder then, that the bulk of Maastricht's foreign visitors come not for the history, but for the abundance of Amsterdam-style "coffee shops" selling marijuana.

Now, however, fed up at the growing numbers of drug tourists, Maastricht plans to move up to half of the offending cafes to the Belgian border - a scheme that has tested the spirit of European integration to its limit.

For the town's mayor, Gerd Leers, the move will simply relocate the cafes safely out of Maastricht and closer to their main market, which locals say is overwhelmingly young Belgians anyway.

But officials in Belgium, where cannabis remains illegal, say the plan will completely derail their own zero-tolerance policy on drugs. Because both countries are signatories to the EU's Schengen free movement agreement, the national boundary exists nowadays only on maps, which means that Belgian towns such as Lanaken, right on the border, may end up looking as if they have their own coffee shop.

"I have a good understanding with Mayor Leers, except when it comes to soft drugs," Lanaken's mayor, Alex Vangronsveld, complained 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, however, back Mr Leers. By moving some of Maastricht's 16 coffee shops to within a few yards of Belgium, they hope to export not just the cannabis trade but also its undesired sidekick, illegal hard drugs.

"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'."

Dutch MPs visited the Belgian border region last week to hear local concerns. They were told that Dutch soft drug cultivators were increasingly targeting hard-up Belgian farmers, in areas near the border, and offering them cash in exchange for use of part of their land. Maastricht officials say the relocation scheme will be voluntary but believe many coffee shop owners would be happier closer to the border.

A date for the move has not been set and some coffee shop managers believe the plan might never be activated. A previous project by Mr Leers to ban non-Dutch residents from frequenting the coffee shops has not been put in motion.

"There are elections next year, so maybe the policy will change again," said the manager of the Easy Going coffee shop, who refused to give her name.

A drug dealer in Club 69, a smart coffee shop near Maastricht's main market square, added: "You'll find they will move the coffee shops in residential areas where there are children running about and leave those in the town centre."

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