Tourists hoping to buy a cannabis joint in Dutch coffee shops could be in for a rude awakening this year under a test plan to curb drug tourism.
Soft drugs are legally banned in the Netherlands but under its policy of “tolerance”, people are allowed to have less than 5 grammes of cannabis in their possession. Government-regulated coffee shops can hold a stock of up to 500 grammes.
“We are developing a system whereby people not registered in the Netherlands will not be allowed into coffee shops,” Justice Ministry spokesman Ivo Hommes said. A pilot project will start up in Maastricht, on the southern tip of the Netherlands.
“We want to do this to combat drugs tourism and should be able to start the project this summer,” he said.
Maastricht, bordering Germany and Belgium, attracts the largest number of tourists in the Netherlands after Amsterdam, many of them French, Germans and Belgians on short breaks.
They include an estimated 1.5 million drug tourists, the city’s Mayor Gerd Leers said on Friday at a conference on tackling the cross-border soft drugs problem.
Some 400,000 cannabis smokers live in the Netherlands, where they can openly buy and smoke the drug, to the ire of neighbouring countries. The Dutch population is 16 million.
The centre-right government now wants to curb drugs tourism, in part due to pressure from its European partners.
The number of coffee shops has been cut to 754 nationwide in 2003 from 1,200 in 1997, according to the latest figures from the Netherlands Trimbos institute for addiction studies.
The government also hopes to stub out the illegal growing of hemp plants and sale of soft drugs by criminal groups.
“As member of parliament in The Hague, I thought it was possible to get rid of cannabis by taking hard measures. But after having been mayor of Maastricht for three years I see that it does not work,” Leers said.
WATER BED EFFECT
He said the tough approach did not work, likening it to the prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the 1920s, which he said was a “a textbook example of a failed experiment in social engineering”.
Maastricht, which has about a dozen authorised coffee shops, is discussing details of the pilot with the Justice Ministry, which could involve user registration and identification.
But coffee shops fear the rules will create more problems and chase buyers into the illegal circuit.
“If coffee shops have to carry out controls at the door, people who don’t want to register will turn to the illegal circuit. We think nuisance will only increase,” the chairman of the association of official coffee shops of Maastricht, Marc Josemans, told the conference.
“Legalise it,” was his suggestion.