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Sunday 26 October  
Coffeeshop licence
John Tyler's picture
The Hague, Netherlands
The Hague, Netherlands

Weed pass clash on the cards

Published on : 20 April 2012 - 8:48am | By John Tyler (Photo: Wikipedia)
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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.

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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.

No problem
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.

Sector shock
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.



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Anonymous 2 May 2012 - 4:14pm / UK

When you see the coffeeshops its clear to tell the tourist biased ones are nice, clean, well lit with lots of daylight coming in, well decorated and often serve excellent meals as well as a range of non marijuana based products. Those aimed at the local market tend to be not so well lit and open to the daylight, often not regularily decorated to the point of sometimes being dingy and often offer no more than just a couple of cannabis varieties and a range of drinks to smoke with. So what the Dutch goverment would like is a move away from being a modern business investing in providing a good service to a mix of clientelle to some backroom smoking dives with yellow walls and catering only for those that don't have a better home to hang out with their friends in locally to smoke and chat. This isn't a step back its the equivalent of falling of the cliff.

Max Harmreduction 22 April 2012 - 5:23am

Big new budget cuts but lots of new spending on policing coffeeshops. Big new policy against foreigners and big loss of tourists. Looks like Harm Reduction is being Minimised and Tolerance is on the way out - or is it? Tolerance has always been used to describe allowing access to 'legal' cannabis. But the aim of coffeeshops has always been to provide a place where there is zero tolerance for junkie drugs and an anti-hard drug youth culture = to protect young cannabis users from starting to be junkies. Pushing young cannabis users away from coffeeshops, with lots of new policing, forces them out of this zero tolerance environment. So these new coffeeshop laws are nothing less than explicit tolerance of junkie drugs and new junkies too. This new Dutch tolerance is Harm Maximisation. Cheers, Max Harmreduction

Kevin L. 21 April 2012 - 11:13am / NL/USA

Just read the following article on RNW: "A record number of people were taken to hospital emergency wards last New Year’s Eve after consuming excessive amounts of alcohol."

So, tell me again where the real problems are in the recreational substances community in Holland?

Nederlander 22 April 2012 - 11:13pm / NLX

Coffeshop crowd = relaxed most of the time, Alcohol crowd = agressive most of the time. Where I live, theres always problems near pubs (fighting) near closing time. Cops have to be in the picture during peak hours just to show that they mean business. I've never seen cops patroling near coffeeshops unless they're there just there for harassing visitors..... This has nothing to do with the publics interest, they're not solving OUR problems, just THEIRS (moral ones). Hooligans are a far bigger problem around here, do they ban football matches all of a sudden?

Kevin L. 25 April 2012 - 10:28am / NL/USA

More interesting (if not disturbing) media press release regarding alcohol:

<< The number of young binge drinkers increased again last year. According to figures released by the observation centre of the Netherlands Pediatric Association 762 young people were admitted to hospital with acute alcohol poisoning in 2011, compared to 684 in 2010 and 297 the year before that. The victims were also unconscious for longer periods – around 3½ hours on average. Pediatrician report that the age of the teenagers they see is decreasing. In 2010 their average age was 15 years 6 months, last year it was down to 15 years and 3 months. >>

So tell me -- how many coffeeshop patrons were admitted for unconciousness in 2010...or at any time? I'm guessing that number would be ZERO /NULL.

Kevin L. 21 April 2012 - 10:49am / NL/USA

Just read the first paragraph containing the Mayor of Maastricht's ridiculous stand..."hiring extra police to enforce the law" shows extreme ignorance! So the LOCAL BUSINESS OWNERS, TAXPAYERS and VOTERS of that district not only will lose a huge amount of tourist Euros -- but they will be paying an enormous bill for an unknown amount of overtime for police agents.

Hmmm...losing local income due to this discriminatory kaart system AND spending more money for more police. Is anyone in office doing the math???

Kevin L. 21 April 2012 - 10:39am / Netherlands (formerly USA)

A law is only as strong as its general support. Defying this discriminatory legislation as a collective is one way to show the weakness, if not foolishness, of this law. But everyone must indeed participate -- as a collective union, so to speak. Kudos and much success to you all in your fighting the good fight. Let the Dutch majority rule -- and not the "moral" minority.

Damnie 21 April 2012 - 7:45am / US

"The Netherlands is a popular holiday destination. In 2007, about 11 million tourists visited the Netherlands, from Europe and from farther afield (the United States and Canada, and emerging economies such as China and India). Foreign tourists spend about €10 billion a year in the Netherlands – more than the annual earnings from the export of plants and flowers."
Half of those "tourists" are smokers, is the Netherlands really prepared to lose half of it's tourist dollars? Please, don't become another United States in an antiquated "War on Drugs" doesn't work. Let Holland be Holland and let the principles of Harm Reduction continue...where's the tolerance?

Anonymous 20 April 2012 - 10:05pm

Hit the Silk Road....

Brendan 20 April 2012 - 5:46pm / Netherlands

I'm a foreigner, but resident in the Netherlands, so have an OV card & could apply for a weed pass. So the discrimination isn't against foreigners, the discrimination isn't based on nationality. It's still discrimintion though. Is the Netherlands watering down its famous tolerance?

Chek-IN/Chek-OUT 20 April 2012 - 8:31pm

Thank you for correcting my assertion below Brendan. The fact is if a person does not have a Dutch Bank Account, then the NS will not offer that person an OV Chipkaart. (As we all now, in order to open a Bank Account in the Netherlands, one must be a resident with proof of employment.)

Visitors (Foreigners) to the Netherlands are discriminated against by the NS/ProRail as Visitors as they are not allowed to take advantage of off-peak train tickets due to NS/Pro-Rail policy as stated above. Of course, a Visitor may still purchase an Anonymous OV Chipkaart from the GVB that he will only be able to top up with cash, but that does not allow for discounted, off-peak travel and the Visitor still must pay full fare in off-peak hours.

Woods 20 April 2012 - 6:30pm

What tolerance? Dutch tolerance went out with frizzy perms in the 80s.

Chek-IN/Chek-OUT 20 April 2012 - 2:17pm

"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."

If the Weedpass Law is overturned because of this violation, then could the NS be sued for violating the same law by only offering OV Chipkaarts to residents only and not to foreigners?

Kevin L. 21 April 2012 - 10:43am / Netherlands (formerly USA)

You are misinformed. The OV chipkaart is indeed available to everyone. There are a variety of card formats. The "Anonymous" card works just fine for foreign visitors.

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