Dutch Drug Crisis: Maastricht hit by crime invasion: Traditionally tolerant policies are under pressure from nervous neighbours and worried voters

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The Independent Online
CLOSE to Maastricht is a much-visited tourist spot, the meeting of three lands, where it is possible to stand in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium at the same time. But it is much easier to sit: take a seat in one of the 30 or so koffieshops in town and let the three lands come to you.

Maastricht's geographical position makes it a magnet for Europe's drugs trade. For the youth of Belgium, Germany and northern France, used to strict laws against drug possession, it is a mecca. The authorities estimate some 1,000 drug tourists a day visit Maastricht and its surrounding area.

The 1,700 police in the South Limburg force say they spend more than 80 per cent of their time dealing with drug- related crime. Since the explosion of synthetic drugs some three years ago the problems have escalated, particularly thefts and muggings.

In the Cafe Easy life is just that. A sweet-smelling haze veils the snooker table. A magnficent Wurlitzer drums out a heavy-metal number. People sit at the bar or at tables, drinking, laughing and smoking - dope and tobacco. Soft drugs are on sale, although the prices are not listed on the board alongside the cocktails and spaghetti, but you only have to ask.

The cafes are not hard to find. Bikes lean tipsily against the front of Kingstown, Club 69, Bar Mississippi . . . The opening hours are 10-ish to 2-ish and the decor is much like that of any student bar: framed postcards, a jukebox, the odd poster of Bob Marley. The atmosphere is good-humoured, it is easy to make friends and shoot the breeze with a motley assortment of students, professionals, lone women, single men, many out of work but not necessarily down and out.

'I just come here to have a good time with friends, it is like any bar, we come for the atmosphere and we smoke if we feel like it,' said a dark-haired girl in jeans. Close by, three boys in back-to-front baseball caps took it in turns to smoke from a hookah. 'We don't see any trouble here, it's exaggerated: this bar attracts mainly locals, the foreigners tend to congregate in the same place - those are the cafes that have been shut down,' said Jans behind the bar.

The Maastricht police have closed five or six coffee shops in the past year, chiefly because the neighbours have complained about the noise. But for the police these are but the tip of the iceberg. They are not licensed and by law may only sell 30 grammes of cannabis derivatives (dope) to customers. All hard drugs are illegal, but anything under a gramme 'for personal use' is tolerated. All are obliged to post outside the 'AHOJ' rules laid down by Dutch law: no advertising, no sales over 30 grammes, no hard drugs, no noise, no entry for under-16s.

All these regulations are flouted and police raids are becoming more common as the authorities crack down and debate tighter controls, such as limiting the number of coffee shops that may exist within a given radius, or granting licences that may be revoked.

The problem is not the Dutch but the foreigners. Outsiders blame the Netherlands' over-liberal laws, but Chief Commissioner Henk Mostert, who has to enforce them, says this is unfair. In the three years he has been trying to contain the drug problem in the province, the explosion in drug-abuse has been among non-Dutch citizens. The number of Dutch addicts has remained static for almost a decade.

The Netherlands makes a distinction between coffee shop soft drugs and hard drugs. The former are tolerated the better to concentrate resources on the latter. Street- dealers and shooting dens are the focus of police action, and their job is made almost impossible by the abolition of European frontiers. And Mr Mostert fears faster, less regulated access to Europe through the Channel Tunnel could give the Netherlands' drugs problem a new dimension.

In December Germany, Belgium and France signed a co-operation agreement, but putting it into practice is difficult. In particular, a tussle in Germany between the local, regional and central authorities, makes it hard to formulate coherent policy.

(Photographs and map omitted)