Drug tourism is side-effect of Maastricht: Dutch town becomes European crossroads for traffickers

Click to follow
THE city fathers of Maastricht, who engineered a public relations coup last year when they hosted the treaty-signing ceremony that put their city's name on the map for millions around the world, are suffering from too much European integration.

This charming town on the River Maas has suddenly become a mecca for 'drug tourism' in Europe as dealers realise how easy it is to cross the Netherlands borders.

The name Maastricht now sticks like a bone in the throat of much of the EC because of the problem of getting it ratified in Denmark and Britain, and its image has suffered a severe knock because of the ease with which the traffickers can operate there. This is because of Dutch tolerance and the absence of any fear of detection when they cross the borders to Germany and Belgium. Drug dealers are proving that the EC single market is profitable, even if this is not yet apparent to legitimate businessmen across the Community.

At the city's railway station the addicts are easily recognised by their listless eyes and uneasy stares. Every day as many as 1,000 drug addicts and recreational users come streaming across the border into Maastricht from Belgium, Germany and northern France.

The customers are greeted at the station or in a nearby park by teenage runners who ferry heroin, amphetamines, hashish and cash for the city's 35 or so semi- official 'house dealers'. The deals are quickly done and within three minutes the traffickers are on their way back to their suppliers to stock up for the next train's arrival.

It is a scene repeated 16 times a day, with the arrival of every cross-border train. In the parks, meanwhile, the addicts shoot up their heroin fixes and spend the day dozing. Many buy enough drugs to finance their trip by selling them once they are back home.

The city's police are helpless to intervene, because under Dutch law it is not a crime to buy small quantities of drugs for private consumption. They occasionally move against the dealers, but they are quickly replaced, so lucrative is the market. Now the authorities are thinking of cracking down on 'public safety' grounds, but the dealers say they will simply move elsewhere, and see no threat to their operation.

The market they are serving is huge, with some 30,000 hard drug addicts living in the neighbouring Belgian province of Liege, the German state of Rhine-Westphalia and northern France.

The arrival of the EC's single market on 1 January this year, and the abolition of all border controls between the Netherlands and its immediate neighbours under the Schengen Treaty, combined with the European Community's most lax laws on drug possession, have conspired to turn Maastricht into a drug dealer's paradise on a par with other Dutch cities such as Amsterdam.

This unwanted side-effect of closer European integration has deeply irked the French government, which is far less tolerant of illegal drug use than the Netherlands. Last Thursday France's European Affairs Minister, Alain Lamassoure, said that France 'will maintain police controls at border posts' in part because of concerns about drug trafficking across the border. The Schengen Accords, abolishing all border controls between Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, were to be implemented in full in July.

France has comparatively draconian anti-drug laws, and concern that its drug control efforts would be severely hampered by the EC's open borders plan caused the new conservative government to bring the gates crashing down on the Accords just five months into the single market.

Now Maastricht, a city with more than 1,400 listed buildings, well-preserved churches, fortifications and bridges, is getting an unsavory reputation as the 'El Paso of Europe'. The authorities in the province of Limbourg want their ancient city to be known as the most important European centre for think-tanks, business schools and research bodies on the Community. But for reasons largely outside their control they have found their reputation as a drug bazaar has spread even faster.

(Map omitted)