Alarmed by the side effects of its tolerant approach to soft drugs, the Dutch government announced plans this week to limit drug tourism by reserving hundreds of cannabis-vending coffee shops for locals.
“The sale of hashish and cannabis in coffee shops must be limited and aimed solely at the local user,” said a cabinet statement on Friday, days before a mayoral ban on Marijuana sales enters into force for eight such shops near the Belgian border.
Faced with the dilemma of criminal control over cannabis cultivation and the “nuisance” created by millions of drug tourists a year, authorities have been taking an increasingly tougher stance on recreational drugs.
Some analysts point to a growing conservatism under the Christian Democrat-led government.
In the clearest indication yet of its global vision for the future, the cabinet on Friday broadly adopted the advice of a committee it had appointed to help in a review of national drug policy.
The commission said in July “the situation has gotten out of hand”, advising that “coffee shops should again become what they were originally meant to be: vending points for local users and not large-scale suppliers to consumers from neighbouring countries.”
The cabinet said it wanted to “limit the nuisance and crime risks”.
“The consensus is that it should be much more difficult for tourists to buy from Dutch coffee shops,” justice ministry spokeswoman Karen Temmink explained.
A draft new drugs policy is to be presented to parliament by year-end.
The Netherlands decriminalised the consumption and possession of under five grams of cannabis in 1976. There are some 700 licensed coffee shops.
Paradoxically, cultivation remains illegal and the two-billion-euro-a-year industry, according to police, is effectively in the hands of the criminal underworld.
In another unintended consequence, several border towns complain of the burdens associated with a weekly influx of tens of thousands of tourists, mainly Belgian, French and German.
Among recent steps taken to deal with these problems, Amsterdam has said it would halve its number of coffee shops, citing criminality, while other cities are to close those within a certain radius of schools.
In the southern Limburg province, 30 coffee shops announced recently they would become private members’ clubs from next year and reduce the daily limit from five to three grams per person.
Patrons would require membership cards and a Dutch debit card to pay with, effectively cutting off tourists.
The Limburg move is backed by the national government, and is one of several pilot projects whose results will be incorporated in its new policy.
Roosendaal and Bergen-op-Zoom, two other southern border councils, announced last year that their eight coffee shops would be interdicted from selling cannabis from next Wednesday in a bid to push back some 25,000 drug tourists per week.
This should make an end, the mayors explained, to the long lines of foreign cars on their roads, hundreds of youths hovering outside coffee shops on weekends, and illegal drug dealers attracted by their presence.
The owners of the eight coffee shops challenged the mayors’ actions in court on Friday. Judgment is expected next Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the two municipalities have launched a campaign to inform youths about the pending changes, including a three-minute video clip entitled, It is over, to be shown in cinemas in nearby Antwerp in Belgium.
The clip shows three Belgian tourists arriving to find the doors of their favourite coffee shop closed. They end up in a police van after an encounter with illegal dealers.
Though the video clip has a humorous undertone, the message couldn’t be more serious. From Wednesday, “law enforcement will be stepped up to put an immediate stop to any illegal street sales”, Roosendaal spokesman Dirk Timmers told AFP.