Maastricht's bad experience with cannabis

One town in the Netherlands has become a magnet for smokers from around Europe. But now the council has had enough. Stephen Castle reports on a crackdown that could herald the end of Dutch liberalism
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The Independent Online

Aboard the Mississippi Boat, moored off the banks of the Maas river, the management has suddenly come over publicity-shy. "No interviews in here," says a burly, long-haired man propping up the bar, "we don't have anything to do with journalists."

One of Holland's most popular, cannabis-selling coffee shops, the Mississippi Boat serves several hundred thousand people each year making its stream of customers the envy of many a Dutch retailer.

But Holland's famously liberal drug policy is about to confront its biggest challenge in decades. The council in Maastricht plans to make it technically illegal to serve foreigners in the city's 16 coffee shops, a move that could drive many of them out of business. If the policy is upheld in the courts, it could, eventually, be extended nationwide. The idea is just one of three controversial - and contradictory - schemes designed to curb the social problems produced by Holland's unique drug laws. Their fate is likely to determine the future of Dutch policy towards cannabis.

The fact that these experiments are taking place in this, historic, city is no coincidence. Within easy driving distance of Belgium, Germany and France, Maastricht has proved a magnet for smokers eager to take advantage of liberal laws. In their wake a trade in illicit cannabis and harder drugs has grown up, accompanied by a rise in crime.

Spurred on by complaints from police and residents, the Mayor of Maastricht, Geerd Leers, has decided that enough is enough. If Mr Leers gets his way, a new by-law will soon require all those who visit coffee shops to show identity cards proving that they are residents. Initially, the law will be enforced only in one coffee shop which will, if necessary, take the case all the way to the European Court of Justice. But, if it loses, foreigners could be banned for all 750 coffee shops in the Netherlands.

In Maastricht's sprawling modern, municipal, headquarters they have been debating for years how to deal with the special effects of the country's drugs policy on a border city. Though they still support the principle of legalising limited use of cannabis, they believe bold steps are needed to tackle its unwelcome consequences here.

Ramona Horbach, one of the Mayor's two drug advisers, argues: "People who visit Maastricht are responsible for a lot of problems, from parking problems to urinating in the streets. There is intimidation, there are efforts to persuade people to buy [hard] drugs. They are trying to sell cocaine, ecstasy or heroin." Most of the coffee shops are to be found in the relatively small, historic, centre of the city, concentrating the problems in one, compact and highly visible zone.

But a small number are in other neighbourhoods, provoking local opposition.

Ms Horbach's colleague, Jasperina de Jonge, adds: "Many tourists come to try to buy soft drugs here in the Netherlands that you cannot buy in Germany, France or Belgium.

"Too many people are visiting. Sometimes there is rowdy behaviour. Some of the coffee shops are in residential areas and people no longer like living there." Parents of young children feel particularly threatened by the combination of rising traffic and a reduced sense of security.

Naturally it was not meant to be like this; the whole point of coffee shops was to bring the use of soft drugs out of the sphere of influence of the criminal gangs.

Though several nations have relaxed their laws on soft drugs, the Netherlands leads the way in regulating their sale. Coffee shops are licensed and no alcohol can be sold or consumed in them. According to the government's own guide, the policy is a success. "Use of cannabis in the Netherlands is comparable to that in other European countries, whereas in the United States it is substantially higher," it says.

But this has been achieved through a contradictory law. Technically all drugs are illegal in the Netherlands though coffee shops are permitted to sell a maximum of five grammes of cannabis without facing prosecution. While it is an offence to produce, possess, sell, import or export hard drugs or cannabis, it is not illegal to use drugs.

That means it is legal for a customer to buy five grammes of cannabis in a coffee shop, but it is illegal for the shop to acquire the stock to sell.

While the law has decriminalised those who use cannabis in small quantities it has not done the same for those who grow it or buy it into their coffee shops.

Maastricht is in the front line because of the massive demand from German, Belgian and French day-trippers. According to the police, the south Limburg region of the Netherlands has an estimated 1.2 million drugs tourists every year.

Peter Tans, head of communications for the Maastricht police, says that, of the estimated 21,000 people charged with crimes this year in south Limburg, 4,500 will be foreigners.

To supply the demand at coffee shops - inflated by foreigners - Maastricht now supports a massive, subterranean cannabis-producing industry.

In the city this year 78kg of cannabis has been seized and 43,000 adult cannabis plants destroyed. Much of this had been farmed out to low-income households under the supervision of gangs. Police raid homes around the city when alerted by the power companies of electricity surges of the type required to run the lamps for cannabis plants (usually power supplies are diverted illegally). According to police calculations, a producer can make €97,640 (£67,000) profit a year by cultivating 18sqm of cannabis plants.

More alarmingly, the police fear that this subculture is making Maastricht fertile territory for gangs dealing in hard drugs. Between January and October 2005, police in the city made 193 arrests in 23 raids, seizing 10kg of heroin, 1.5kg of cocaine, 12,000 ecstasy tablets, €171,000 in cash and 11 firearms.

Mr Tans says: "It can't go on like it has been for several years now. We hope that [the city's] experiment will be successful because the problems here give us a huge workload. It means 100,000 man-hours every year if 100 policemen are needed just to deal with the drugs problem." Prompted by mounting complaints, the city authorities, which have extensive powers under Dutch law, have taken several initiatives. The first was to clamp down gradually on the number of coffee shops.

Each one must be licensed and Maastricht has refused new approvals so that, when owners leave or die, their businesses close. In the early to mid-1990s Maastricht boasted 30 coffee shops; it now has just over half that number.

But with that failing to solve the problem, the city is adopting two, radically different, policies in addition to the effort to stop foreigners being served in coffee shops. The Mayor is leading a push to shift some of the coffee shops out of the city centre. Mr Leers wants to create three drive-in centres on main roads away from the heart of Maastricht and from residential areas to service the demand from drug tourists.

Nicknamed "weed boulevard" or "McDope", this project directly contradicts the policy of barring foreigners from coffee shops because it is designed to serve that non-Dutch demand but keep it away from the city centre.

Nevertheless, the authorities know their residents-only policy on cannabis will not be enforced for at least two years because of the time the legal test case will take.

Moreover they want to start straight away on the drive-in plans in case the bar on non-residents proves to be against European law preventing discrimination against EU citizens.

Finally, and most controversially, the city would like to see a liberal measure adopted to regulate the so-called "back door" coffee shop trade. Maastricht has offered to host an experiment in cultivating cannabis under strict supervision to supply local coffee shops and put criminal gangs out of business. Though the logic of their policies suggests that the Netherlands should allow legal production of cannabis, ministers have always shrunk from such a step, knowing it would provoke an international storm. Ms De Jonge says: "The problem of the back door has to be solved. Local government recognises that fact but national government has to see that that is the next step."

For the coffee shop-owners the city's policies present an unprecedented challenge. Marc Josemans, who runs the Easy Going coffee shop, accepts that there are difficulties in the city, but says that "the only people who bring problems are the criminals who are being attracted by the stream of cannabis clients on our streets." Mr Josemans, who is president of the society of official coffee shops in Maastricht, is a fierce opponent of the city's efforts to bar foreigners and has agreed to be prosecuted so he can contest the case.

He wants to work with the city council to agree a plan for moving some of the coffee shops out of the city. However he points out that persuading owners to relocate is impossible if their shops might later be banned from serving non-residents.

"As long as this pilot [project to ban foreigners] remains in the air it is very hard to persuade people to spread out of the city," he says, "we hope the city will postpone it by two or three years." One area of consensus is over the city's desire to cultivate cannabis legally. Because of the tough police line, "the good growers stop growing", says Mr Josemans, "they say it is too dangerous for them. Organised crime has big nurseries where they grow lower quality for higher prices. The idealism of our growers has gone. The guys we used to work with for 25 years are drawing back more and more."

But while local government and the coffee shops agree that this is at the root of their problems, power to permit such an experiment rests in The Hague. Maastricht's plan to legalise the "backdoor" looks likely to be blocked by national government. And that will leave the city trying to manage the consequences of a flawed drug law with two, contradictory, policies. It will start creating coffee shops for foreigners outside the city centre, while putting in place a law that could ban them from buying.

Just a few yards from the Mississippi Boat at Smoky's floating coffee shop, half a dozen people are sitting, smoking, sipping soft drinks and listening to loud rock music. Cannabis is on sale for between €4.50 and €15 a gram and there is little support for any crackdown on the trade.

Most of the allegations against the coffee shops are false, says one client, adding: "You've heard about bar fights but no one's ever heard of a coffee shop fight".

Smoky's sells less than 8 per cent to clients from Maastricht and places like this know the new law could drive them out of business. The man behind the bar has one word for the city's plans: "stupid".

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