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Dutch move a step closer to banning 'cannabis tourists'

The Dutch government moved a step closer to barring tourists from the country's marijuana bars after a court ruled yesterday that the ban would not violate European laws.

The European Court of Justice said the southern Dutch city of Maastricht was within its rights when it briefly banned non-Dutch residents from its soft-drug dens in 2005.

The policy is aimed at curbing problems by so-called "drug tourists" who flock to Maastricht from Belgium and Germany. The visitors have a reputation for rowdiness and creating havoc on the roads and in the city's narrow medieval lanes.

While marijuana is technically illegal in the Netherlands, it has been sold openly for decades in designated cafés, known as coffee shops. Police make no arrests for possession of small amounts.

However, the new conservative government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte is planning to make the coffee shops members-only clubs, aiming to shut out tourists.

Ivo Opstelten, the Justice Minister, has said he wants to turn coffee shops back into small neighbourhood haunts where locals can smoke pot in peace, instead of the large-scale tourist magnets many have become.

Authorities warn that organised crime gangs dominate the illegal cultivation of cannabis plants to supply the shops. It is one of the anomalies of the Dutch drug policy that selling weed is tolerated, but growing it is not.

Marc Josemans, owner of the Easy Going coffee shop in Maastricht who initiated the legal fight against the ban, argued that coffee shops are a successful way of regulating the drug market and preventing marijuana users coming into contact with drugs such as heroin. "All these people who visit coffee shops, they want to use and buy cannabis in a safe haven where they are not being contacted with hard drugs or hassled for other things," he said. "That place is called the coffee shop."

The court said in its written ruling that banning foreigners from coffee shops "constitutes a measure capable of substantially limiting drug tourism and, consequently, of reducing the problems it causes".

The ruling rejected Mr Josemans's claim that the policy breached European Union laws on the free movement of goods and services. The court said that because selling marijuana is technically illegal the EU laws do not apply.