Foreign visitors are to be kept out of Dutch coffee shops - where soft drugs are sold legally – by introducing a membership card system for purchasing cannabis. Minister of Security and Justice Ivo Opstelten’s plan has already been approved by the Lower House. But not everybody thinks it should get the go-ahead.
Minister Opstelten wants to introduce the membership card system for purchasing cannabis in order to combat organised crime around coffee shops and prevent foreign visitors from disrupting public order.
Professor of General Law Studies at the University of Groningen, Jan Brouwer, has done extensive research into the Dutch drug tolerance policy. He believes that excluding foreign tourists from coffee shops goes against Article 1 of the Dutch constitution, prohibiting discrimination:
”And we say, it is at odds with Article 1. It isn’t that you are never allowed to infringe on it, but you do need to have objective and just grounds to do so. Well, do we have them? According to the minister, there are: foreigners cause trouble here. To which we answer: Yes, and don’t Dutch people cause trouble?”
Illegal drugs trade
Especially coffee shops in the big cities and towns on the German and Belgian borders attract many cannabis users. The majority of local authorities here are against the membership card system, as they fear it will encourage the illegal drugs trade. If the membership card system is introduced, tourists will bypass it by buying drugs in the streets, Professor Brouwer thinks. The illegal trade will flourish.
Soft drugs are crowd-puller
The mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, says that if the illegal drugs trade does increase because of the membership system, he doesn’t have the means to adequatly combat it. According to him, 4.5 million tourists from abroad visit Amsterdam every year. Over a million of them also go to the coffee shops. They would then mainly depend on the illegal trade for their weed.
As the plans stand now, coffee shops will become private clubs, each with 1000 to 1500 exclusively Dutch members who all have a membership card. Local authorities are allowed to cut, but not raise the number of members. If it’s up to Minister Opstelten, the membership card system will be introduced in the south of the Netherlands, along the Belgian border, this coming autumn. The other provinces are to follow later.
Chairman of the Netherlands Platform of Cannabis Enterprises, Willem Panders, thinks the measures are “draconic and absurd”. Because introducing the system not only affects tourists from abroad, but also somebody from Groningen who is visiting Maastricht and wants to buy weed, but isn’t a member of a coffee shop in Maastricht. Would a coffee shop be lenient towards this person from Groningen or a foreigner? Mr Panders doesn’t think so:
"That would be the same as saying today, well, that guy looks mature. We know he's not eighteen yet, but anyway, let's sell hime some stuff. You're putting your business at risk if you do things like that. I don't think coffeeshops would want to take that risk."
Foreign tourists, as well as Groningers in Maastricht, or Maastricht residents in Groningen, have one last hope. The cabinet decision to introduce the membership system is not final. It is pending while the Council of State, the country's highest judicial body, is mulling over a conflict between the city of Maastricht and a coffee shop owner who continues to welcome foreigners. The verdict is expected in early July, and it could lead to a revision of the new laws.