Pubdate: Sun, 28 Dec 2008
Source: Sunday Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: Telegraph Group Limited 2008
Author: Nick Meo
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


By the time the shooting ended, the A73 south of  Nijmegan was 
littered with bullet casings, and one man  lay dead in his car with 
another sprawled wounded in  the passenger seat.

The survivor refused to talk to police, even though a  hired assassin 
had pursued his vehicle shooting at it  without hitting for several 
miles before finally  catching up and riddling it with automatic fire.

Commuters were horrified, but the murder in September  was wearily 
familiar to detectives who have dealt with  25 gangland-style 
killings in suburban southern Holland  over the past three years.

As usual, there was a cannabis connection. The assassin  was a hired 
Bulgarian and his two victims, men in their  twenties, had been 
involved with one of the thousands  of cannabis "nurseries" which 
flourish out of sight in  the attics, sheds and spare rooms of small 
towns  - using Dutch horticultural expertise honed from  years of 
growing tomatoes and tulips.

Billions of euros worth of cannabis is grown for export  - much of it 
to Britain - in Holland's  modern cannabis industry, which has come a 
long way  since the days of penniless hippies growing pot on 
Amsterdam houseboats and opening "coffee shops" where  stoners could 
happily puff away in an atmosphere of  dope haze, peace and love.

Now there is so much money and violence involved that  Holland's 
police commissioner responsible for cannabis  calls it a danger to 
Dutch society.

Since he started his job a year ago Max Daniel has made  it his 
mission to change Holland's laid-back view of  the drug, and as calls 
mount from politicians and  citizens to shut "nuisance" coffee shops 
he believes  that his message is getting through.

Mr Daniel said: "For years this was seen as an innocent  business and 
the tolerant Dutch approach was  undoubtedly a successful form of 
harm reduction -  it kept users away from hard drugs.

"But now there is so much money to be made that  cannabis is sucking 
in organised crime gangs from  abroad and corrupting legitimate 
businesspeople -  especially lawyers, estate agents and bankers. 
Money laundering is a massive enterprise, and it is 
bringing  together white-collar professionals and the kind 
of  criminals who deal with heroin, prostitutes and  people-smuggling.

"Cannabis is a threat to our democracy."

Mr Daniel said police noticed that the business was  starting to 
change about 15 years ago when criminals  realised there were bigger 
profits from growing  cannabis in Holland than smuggling it from 
Morocco, but  the violence has become much worse in the past few  years.

Dutch police believe that the underground cannabis  growing cottage 
industry has now become one of their  nation's biggest earners of 
foreign currency, worth an  estimated 2.7 billion euros (#2.3 
billion) in total  - about half as much as Holland's 
legitimate  horticultural business.

The public perception has not kept up with the  worsening 
criminality; most Dutch still regard cannabis  as harmless, if not 
quite respectable. A nationwide  poll in November found that 80 per 
cent of Dutch people  opposed the closure of marijuana coffee shops.

The nation's 730 coffee shops, where customers can buy  herbal 
cannabis or hashish without fear of arrest,  attract tourists and pay 
more than 300 million euros in  tax annually.

An estimated 40 per cent of the cannabis grown in  Holland is sold in 
them. Police believe some are fronts  for organised crime, but the 
worst of the violence  takes place in the cannabis-growing industry 
where  strong-arm gangs prey on novices who think they can  make easy 
money by setting up cannabis farms.

Everything needed can be bought in a "grow shop"  - seeds, nutrients, 
powerful lights and hydration  systems. Police say some grow shops 
sell the addresses  of novices to criminal gangs, who months later 
smash  their way in and steal crops or cash.

Cannabis growers can't go to the law for protection, so  they arm 
themselves, electrify doors to shock or  electrocute, or buy large 
dogs for protection. In one  case police discovered a trap for 
intruders, in the  form of a pit filled with sharpened stakes dug 
beneath  a doormat. Suburban Holland has never seen anything  like it.

Public anger about tolerant drugs laws is mounting  along the French 
and Belgian borders, where rows of  coffee shops sell to thousands of 
drugs tourists every  week. They are accused of making a nuisance in 
the  placid and law-abiding small towns.

This month Amsterdam's civic fathers decided to shut 43  of the 
city's 228 coffee shops as they were close to  schools, another sign 
of growing anxiety about the  city's laid-back drugs laws.

So far coffee shop owners have been remarkably relaxed  in the face 
of the growing campaign against them.

"Every few years we hear about how they are going to  close us down 
and about what a threat we are to the  nation's morals," said Michael 
Veling, sitting in a fug  of potent cannabis smoke inside his "420" 
coffee shop  on the edge of Amsterdam's red light district.

He dismissed the increasingly vociferous police  warnings about 
organised crime as "scaremongering" and  accused the politicians of 
pandering to a small  Christian party which is now part of Holland's 
ruling  coalition.

Mr Veling, a clean-shaven 53 year-old who is head of  the coffee shop 
owners' association, makes an unlikely  drugs dealer.

He described himself as bourgeois and pointed out that  he paid 
income tax at Holland's top 52 per cent rate.  He insisted that he 
provided a valued service, not  least to the hordes of young English 
visitors who boost  Amsterdam's economy when they stream in every weekend.

At the bar, customers were offered a range of different  cannabis 
products, which since last year cannot be  mixed with tobacco which 
it is now illegal to smoke in  public places.

The coffee shop's resident expert, Steven Pratt, a  long-haired 
32-year-old from Stourbridge, advised  customers in the manner of a 
wine waiter that one brand  gave a euphoric high, while smoking 
another ensured  what he described as "a more traditional 'stoned' effect".

His patrons included a mournful-looking Dutch pensioner  in a leather 
jacket who smoked alone at the bar, and a  group of rowdy young 
Italians who couldn't stop  giggling.

The police routinely call by to check the scales used  to measure 
cannabis and make sure that no hard drugs  are sold.

Last year Amsterdam's policemen were urged by their  bosses not to 
smoke dope in the coffee shops during  their time off.

Michelle Martin, 36, an IT worker from Liverpool, was  enjoying a 
joint with her friend Lee Jones, 33, from  South Africa in the 420.

"It's not sleazy, it's just a fun place to come and  relax and meet 
people," she said. "I feel safer walking  back from here than I do in 
Liverpool, and I've never  seen any signs of organised crime in 
Amsterdam. Surely  closing the coffee shops and forcing cannabis 
underground would help criminals take over this  business?"
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom