Dutch drugs policy is changing. The image of this country as a paradise for those wanting to enjoy soft drugs without looking over their shoulders is slowly but surely going up in smoke. The most far-reaching change is a new policy making it illegal for tourists to purchase cannabis which will gradually come into effect in 2012.
This is not the absolute end of the famed Dutch tolerance for soft drugs. Residents will still be allowed to purchase marijuana at the so-called coffee shops. But in 2012 those coffee shops will have to become members-only clubs, with membership open only to Dutch residents. And each coffee shop-club can have no more than 2000 members.
Other new regulations are also limiting the sale of soft drugs in the Netherlands.
A regulation that went into effect last year says all coffee shops must be at least 350 metres from a school.
A new law is likely to come into force next year designating marijuana with a high percentage of the active ingredient THC, as a hard drug.
Hallucinatory mushrooms were banned a few years ago.
The new regulation has come to be known as the Weed Pass policy, referring to the cards coffee shop club members would be issued. But in fact no cards will be issued as the Justice Ministry is concerned about forgery and illegal trade in the passes themselves. Instead, members of the new coffee shop clubs will have to show their passport or driver’s licence, and the owners will have to maintain a membership list.
Needless to say, the new regulations are meeting with resistance. Coffee shop owners fear they will no longer have enough business, and will incur higher administrative costs. Opposition MPs say the new regulations are misguided. Lea Bouwmeester is a Labour Party MP. She writes on her website that the wholesale supply of marijuana needs regulating, not the demand.
"The growing of cannabis and retail supply trade takes place in the illegal circuit. That’s what we need to control.”
More repression will lead to more crime, she claims, and the already over-stretched police forces will have to spend time enforcing the new system.
The tourist industry is also concerned about the effect of the new regulations. Steven van der Heijden runs the largest tourist operations in the Netherlands, Arke and Holland International. He is particularly concerned about Amsterdam, where one quarter of all tourists visit a coffee shop.
“Coffee shops are part of the picture, just like the red light district. It’s an enormous selling point for the city which is now being taken away.”
The southern provinces will also be hit hard by the new system. Hundreds of coffee shops do a booming business selling soft drugs to customers from across the borders with Belgium and Germany. The chairman of an organisation representing coffee shop owners in Maastricht, Marc Joseman, says
"You can see this policy was made in a big hurry. We expect it will lead to a lot of problems. It’s going to be a hot summer in Maastricht.”
In fact, the club idea originated in Maastricht, where the foreign drug tourists were increasingly seen as an annoyance. Officials in the southern provinces of Limburg, North Brabant and Zeeland are keen for better control of the sale of soft drugs to foreigners.
Legal challenges unsuccessful
A case challenging the law was rejected by the Court of Justice of the European Union, which ruled that maintaining order was a sufficient reason to allow foreigners to be discriminated against when it comes to buying drugs. A ruling on the case in June 2011 by the highest Dutch judicial authority, the Council of State, was interpreted by the government as allowing the regulation to go forward.
Implementation of the new members-only policy will take place in phases. Officially, the policy takes effect on 1 January 2012, but it won’t be enforced straight away. Coffee shop owners are being given extra time to make the necessary changes.
The policy will be enforced in the southern provinces first, starting in May. Other parts of the country will follow, culminating with Amsterdam at the end of the year. By 1 January 2013, tourists will no longer be allowed to purchase a legal high anywhere in the Netherlands.