Pubdate: Mon, 28 May 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Author: Suzanne Daley


VENLO, the Netherlands -- Town officials here are adamant that their plan 
should not be referred to as "McDope."

But that may be a losing battle.

Under a proposal expected to be approved by the end of May, this modest 
town along the slow-moving Maas River, where barges regularly chug by, 
wants to open two drive-through shops where "drug tourists" can buy small 
amounts of marijuana and hashish without even getting out of their cars.

Although coffee shops selling small amounts of such soft drugs exist all 
over the Netherlands, no one has yet done a drive-through.

The idea has caused a sensation and flooded this town of about 65,000 
people on the southern part of the country's eastern border with curious 
journalists. Already Venlo has five licensed coffee shops where customers 
can pick their favorite brands of marijuana and hashish from among heaping 
plastic Tupperware-type containers set out for display.

Recently at one of the shops, called Roots, the young man behind the 
counter declined to discuss his views on what he called the "McDrives."

"I have talked to six journalists already today," he said, inhaling deeply 
from an oversize marijuana cigarette. "I can't do it anymore."

Actually Venlo is not trying to increase its drug business. It is trying to 
get rid of it.

The problem, town officials say, is that about five million people live 
within an hour's drive of Venlo, most of them across the border in Germany, 
where sale of marijuana and hashish remain illegal. As people have grown 
more and more comfortable with the European Union's open borders, and 
virtually every physical sign of the border posts have disappeared, more 
and more Germans are coming to Venlo to buy drugs.

As early as 8 a.m., the cars with German license plates begin rolling down 
Urbanus Street disgorging customers who dash out to make quick purchases.

Venlo could live with it, officials said, if all stopped there. But drug 
customers, its seems, beget drug dealers, and not everyone is satisfied 
with just five grams of marijuana, the maximum sold in the licensed coffee 

Venlo officials say there are now more than 65 illegal places to buy drugs 
in town. And bunches of young men lounge around parts of town, haranguing 
passers-by with offers of all kinds of drugs.

"They approach the people quite aggressively," said Elke Haanraadts, the 
town planner in charge of the anti-drug project. "This is the problem. 
There is not a feeling of security."

The idea, said Ms. Haanraadts, is to put the drive-throughs outside town -- 
even closer to the German border, which is just half a mile away. "They 
would just be selling near the big road," she said, "and they might not 
even have a place to sit down." The hope, of course, is that the dealers 
will also get out of town.

Will it work? Even Ms. Haanraadts is not sure.

"It is a kind of experiment," she said. "We will see."

A good deal of Dutch drug activity operates in a gray legal area.

Drug selling, even of soft drugs, is not technically legal. It is 
"tolerated" to the point that the city licenses the coffee shops. But at 
the same time, everyone turns a blind eye to how the shops get their stock, 
an activity that since it involves transactions of large amounts, is not 
legal or tolerated. All that can make it hard for a city to know what to 
do, Ms. Haanraadts said.

The drive-throughs are only a third of Venlo's anti-drug plan. The city has 
also been buying up sites used by drug dealers and finding new tenants.

And police efforts are being stepped up as well.

It is hard to find a Venlo citizen opposed to the proposal. Most of them 
grumble that the Germans are hypocrites: unloading a problem on the Dutch 
because they refuse to legalize what is common practice among their own 

Putting the problem closer to the border is fine with them.

"Because it is not allowed over there, we have the problem," said Harry 
Heesakker, the owner of a sporting goods store surrounded by the drug trade.

Mr. Heesakker says the value of his property has been cut in half in the 
last three years. On either side of his store are empty shops, where the 
police have shut down drug operations.

The rest of the stores nearby almost all sell drug paraphernalia -- their 
display windows filled with huge hand-blown glass water pipes, lighters and 
rolling papers. Some have chalkboards in front advertising varieties of 
hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Town officials and even merchants like Mr. Heesakker say the drug trade has 
not brought violence to the area. In fact, Mr. Heesakker says the dealers 
behave like fellow merchants -- they are friendly toward him, gossipy and 
protective of the street. Still, they tend to keep regular customers away.

It is true that the whole area has a furtive feel to it. Even the customers 
going to the licensed coffee shops tend to hurry away with their heads 
down. No one wants to be identified.

In the late afternoon the pace of activity quickens for the drug dealers.

Most of the customers are young. But there are middle-aged couples too, a 
few with children. Some settled down inside the licensed shops to play 
pinball; others wandered to the river to light up. But most climb quickly 
back into their cars for their long rides home.

Many say that they could buy drugs in Germany, too, but that making the 
trip to Venlo is easier. "It's cheaper here, and the stuff is better 
quality," said one young man. "Yeah, you worry about getting stopped on the 
other side. But not that much, and this is no hassle here." 
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