Pubdate: Sun, 19 May 2002
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Justin Sparks, Peter Conradi


THE coffee shops of Amsterdam, where cannabis and other soft drugs are sold 
openly, are under threat after the swing to the right in last Wednesday's 
general election.

The Christian Democrats, likely to form a coalition with the radical 
anti-immigration Pim Fortuyn List, have vowed to close such cafes across 
the Netherlands, blaming them for the growing drug use among the young.

The party leader, Jan Peter Balkenende, a devout Christian who is expected 
to be prime minister, promised to end tolerance of cannabis.

"This is not a battle we're going to win overnight," said Marcel Maer, a 
Christian Democrat spokesman. "But we will chip away at the coffee shops, 
greatly reducing their number over the next two years until hopefully we 
can get rid of them altogether."

Balkenende, nicknamed Harry Potter for his youthful, owlish looks, expects 
resistance not only from the shops and their users but also from his 
prospective coalition partners.

Fortuyn, assassinated a week before the election, was known for liberal 
views on drugs which some members of his List are believed to share.

The government of Wim Kok, the outgoing Labour prime minister, had reduced 
the number of coffee shops in the country from 1,200 to 840 -- a quarter of 
them in Amsterdam. The amount of drugs a customer may buy was cut from 30g 
to 5g.

A recent report concluded that the average age of drug users was continuing 
to fall, however, and drug-taking was common among schoolchildren. A sharp 
rise in sales of hard drugs has challenged the view that tolerance of 
cannabis frees police to combat the trade in heroin and cocaine. Concern 
has also been growing over links between some coffee shops and organised crime.

"We expect rules making it harder for coffee shops to keep their licences," 
said Reier Elzinga, chairman of the Association of Cannabis Retailers. 
"With Pim at the helm we were safe, but we're no longer sure." Drugs policy 
is only one of the issues that Balkenende will have to hammer out with his 
coalition partners. Immigration could be even more contentious.Fortuyn, who 
called Islam "backward", demanded an end to all immigration -- a policy 
dismissed by Balkenende as unacceptable. Fortuyn's heirs have made little 
mention of the subject since their victory, however, and seem prepared to 
soften their stance.

While talks continue, attention has focused on some of the more colourful 
MPs who were elected under Fortuyn's banner. The party, which came second 
with 26 of the 150 parliamentary seats -- compared with the Christian 
Democrats' 43 -- was formed just three months ago. Reports last week 
suggested that Fortuyn was so concerned about some of his colleagues that 
he hired a detective agency to investigate them.

One member believed to have been under scrutiny is Cor Eberhard, a sports 
photographer who became a pornography magnate and earned millions from 
erotic websites. Eberhard denies impropriety. "I'm clean as a baby," he 
said. Internal feuds have led to several resignations and only one founder, 
John Dost, remains. He drives a Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible and keeps 
a yacht in the south of France, but has faced embarrassing questions about 
his financial affairs.The Dutch tax authorities confirmed that in lieu of 
unpaid taxes, they took control of an office building in Rotterdam in which 
the party had its base, and seized other assets. Dost blamed his 
accountant. "The tax office has forgotten to pass on information to the 
registry office," he said.

Even more disappointing is the disappearance of Winny de Jong, a former 
model and actress who worked for the agriculture ministry and was seen as a 
possible succesor to Fortuyn.

"Winny's at home in bed," said Mat Herben, Fortuyn's former spokesman who 
was chosen as party leader instead. "She's worn out by the pressure and 
hasn't been able to get over Pim's death. It's difficult for many of us 
suddenly to be at the centre of media attention."
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