Come the first of May, southern towns in the Netherlands are going to defy the national government in The Hague. Local councils in Limburg, North Brabant and Zeeland have said they will ignore a law which will take effect on that date barring foreigners from buying soft drugs. Mayors from cities elsewhere in the country, including Amsterdam, have expressed their support.
The Mayor of Maastricht, Onno Hoes, on the other hand, is having none of it. He is determined to enforce the law from day one, and has called in extra police to make sure anyone buying soft drugs from that day forward has a so-called 'weed pass'. "This will only work if it is strictly enforced. Starting the first of May, we are going to be very strict."
The Justice Department, of course, agrees with Mr Hoes and a number of other mayors have expressed their support too. The two sides are heading for a confrontation. How did it get to this?
Started in Maastricht
The idea for the law originated in Maastricht a few years ago. The city was tired of the disturbance from the estimated 1.5 million foreigners per year coming in just to buy soft drugs at the city's 19 coffeeshops. Banning the sale of soft drugs was not an option, so it was decided to limit the sale to residents of the Netherlands and eliminate drug tourism that way. Residents of Maastricht would benefit and, more importantly, the Netherlands would hereby address a long-standing complaint from its European neighbors who were tired of seeing their own drug policies undermined by easy access to Dutch drugs.
However, such a system would have to be introduced across the country, and it has been controversial from the start. That’s one reason that its implementation has been spread out over the course of the year. The law officially took effect on 1 January of this year, but enforcement is only now kicking in.
It was agreed that enforcement in the southern provinces of Zeeland, North Brabant and Limburg would begin on 1 May. The rest of the provinces can wait until 1 January 2013.
Many local representatives say the problem the law is meant to address does not exist in their community: trouble caused by tourists coming here to buy drugs. There are fears the weed pass will push the drug trade back underground.
Coffeeshop owners, along with a number of mayors, filed one last lawsuit in an attempt to block enforcement of the law. The Council of the State, the highest Dutch court for civil law, heard arguments this past week and will give its ruling on 27 April. Lawyers for the coffeeshop owners say they have a reasonable chance of success, even though the Council of State, followed by the European Court of Justice, both earlier ruled in favour of the weed pass law.
The weed pass essentially violates European anti-discrimination law, not to mention Article 1 of the Dutch constitution. It discriminates on the basis of residence – those who live in the Netherlands may purchase cannabis, those who do not, cannot. But the courts ruled that this discrimination is allowed if it is deemed necessary to maintain public order.
The coffeeshop owners and the mayors supporting them argue that if there is no public disturbance, there is no legal basis to discriminate. In fact, they argue that enforcement of the law will create a much greater public disturbance.
In response, the government says one must take a broad view of public order to include the criminal circuit selling drugs to the coffeeshops. Government attorney Eric Daalder defended the law before the Council of State. "Due to drug tourism, the coffeeshops have gotten larger and larger, and this has led to more and more crime. We have to get back to what the coffeeshops were originally meant to be: small scale and geared toward local users."
One of the lawyers bringing the suit on behalf of the coffeeshop owners, Maurice Veldman, says the weed pass will not solve the problem of crime and soft drugs. Instead, the government has to address the supply of cannabis, which has always remained unregulated and is often in the hands of criminal elements.
Many, however, do see the need for the weed pass. Dordrecht, in South Holland, has even decided to start enforcing the law on 1 July, earlier than required. Dordrecht is situated close to the southern provinces and the mayor fears a run on coffeeshops in his city once the law is enforced in the south.
The sector has already begun dismissing employees. Marc Josemans, a coffeeshop owner from Maastricht, says he fears up to 4,000 coffee shop workers will have to be let go if the weed pass is strictly enforced. "This cabinet is known for its symbolic gestures and we knew we would be victimized." Dozens of coffeeshops will likely have to close. The law will also have an effect on the tourist sector, since foreigners will no longer travel to the Netherlands to get high.
Along with Maastricht, Amsterdam attracts the most drug tourists and therefore has the most to gain or lose from enforcement. But for now, Amsterdam can watch and wait as the confrontation plays out far to the south.