Council tackles drug abuse ... by selling the stuff itself

The Paradox cannabis shop in the Dutch town of Delfzijl certainly lives up to its name, reports Abi Daruvalla
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The Independent Online
Despite recent pledges by the government of the Netherlands that it is cracking down on drugs, the local council in the small northern town of Delfzijl is pushing the country's liberal image to the limit by opening its own shop to sell soft drugs.

From tomorrow the appropriately-named Paradox shop will offer numerous varieties of cannabis and hashish from its somewhat sterile premises - including the notoriously potent "skunk" for 10 guilders (pounds 3.87) a gram. Customers must be over 18, and will be able to buy only five grams a day. Tea, coffee and fruit juices will also be on sale.

Delfzijl's mayor, Eduard Haaksman, insists without a hint of irony that the aim is to discourage the use of cannabis by controlling its sale. The council oversaw the creation of an independent foundation to run Paradox, and put up 400,000 guilders to buy premises and establish the shop.

Under pressure from the country's EU partners, particularly France, Germany and Belgium, which complain that the Schengen agreement on open borders has meant a flood of drugs from the Netherlands, the government is tightening up on the country's "coffee shops", where soft drugs are openly available. But local authorities have considerable freedom to conduct their own policies, and Delfzijl did not consult the central government about its controversial project.

Mr Haaksman is unmoved by criticism. "I do not think we are sending out the wrong signal to other countries, and I don't expect many drug tourists to use Paradox. Schengen is not my responsibility. My responsibility as mayor of Delfzijl is to solve the local drugs problem, and that is what the council, judicial services and police are trying to do by controlling sales within a 10-kilometre radius. No other outlets will be allowed in this municipality." He was equally dismissive of complaints from the owners of soft-drug outlets in Delfzijl which will have to close as a result of the council's scheme.

The shop is aptly named in another way: although it is not intended to make profits, any money left over will be used for information campaigns against soft drugs, on the premises as well as in schools.

Paradox is in the midst of other cafes and shops in the centre of Delfzijl, an industrial harbour town on the Eems estuary, about 25 miles from the German border. The mayor's reputation as a man who listens to public opinion has helped win over most of the local population, says Marianne Janssen, a local journalist who has followed the project closely. Mr Haaksman allayed most of the fears of elderly people in a nearby apartment building by inviting them to visit him every Monday morning with any complaints they may have.

The ultimate paradox is that while the Dutch government allows the sale of cannabis for personal consumption, the wholesale supply trade is still illegal. "The crazy thing about the Netherlands is that drugs through the front door are OK, but what happens at the back door is forbidden. Suppliers on the way to our shop where their products can be sold legally may be arrested," said Mr Haaksman. So where would the drugs come from? "I don't know and don't want to know."