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


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 

"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 

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 

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 shops.

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 citizens.

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 
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