Pubdate: Wed, 18 Aug 2010
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: A1, Front Page
Copyright: 2010 The New York Times Company
Author: Suzanne Daley


MAASTRICHT, the Netherlands - On a recent summer night, Marc
Josemans's Easy Going Coffee Shop was packed. The lines to buy
marijuana and hashish stretched to the reception area where customers
waited behind glass barriers.

Most were young. Few were Dutch.

Thousands of "drug tourists" sweep into this small, picturesque city
in the southeastern part of the Netherlands every day - as many as two
million a year, city officials say. Their sole purpose is to visit the
city's 13 "coffee shops," where they can buy varieties of marijuana
with names like Big Bud, Amnesia and Gold Palm without fear of

It is an attraction Maastricht and other Dutch border cities would now
gladly do without. Struggling to reduce traffic jams and a high crime
rate, the city is pushing to make its legalized use of recreational
drugs a Dutch-only policy, banning sales to foreigners who cross the
border to indulge. But whether the European Union's free trade laws
will allow that is another matter.

The case, now wending its way through the courts, is being closely
watched by legal scholars as a test of whether the European Court of
Justice will carve out an exception to trade rules - allowing one
country's security concerns to override the European Union's guarantee
of a unified and unfettered market for goods and services.

City officials say they have watched with horror as a drug tolerance
policy intended to keep Dutch youth safe - and established long before
Europe's borders became so porous - has morphed into something else
entirely. Municipalities like Maastricht, in easy driving distance
from Belgium, France and Germany, have become regional drug supply

Maastricht now has a crime rate three times that of similar-size Dutch
cities farther from the border. "They come with their cars and they
make a lot of noise and so on," said Gerd Leers, who was mayor of
Maastricht for eight years. "But the worst part is that this group,
this enormous group, is such an attractive target for criminals who
want to sell their own stuff, hard stuff, and they are here too now."

In recent years, crime in Maastricht, a city of cobblestone lanes and
medieval structures, has included a shootout on the highway, involving
a Bulgarian assassin hired to kill a rival drug producer.

Mr. Leers used to call the possibility of banning sales to foreigners
a long shot. But last month, Maastricht won an early round. The
advocate general for the European Court of Justice, Yves Bot, issued a
finding that "narcotics, including cannabis, are not goods like others
and their sale does not benefit from the freedoms of movement
guaranteed by European law."

Mr. Leers called the ruling "very encouraging." Coffee shop owners saw
it differently.

"There is no way this will hold up," said John Deckers, a spokesman
for the Maastricht coffee shop owners' association. "It is
discrimination against other European Union citizens."

If Maastricht gets its way, many other Dutch municipalities will
doubtless follow. Last year, two small Dutch towns, Rosendal and
Bergen op Zoom, decided to close all their coffee shops after surveys
showed that most of their customers were foreigners.

The situation has not made for good neighborly feelings. Many
residents of border towns criticize Belgium, France and Germany for
tolerating recreational drug use but banning the sale of drugs. "They
don't punish small buyers," said Cyrille Fijnaut, a professor at the
University of Tilburg law school. "But they also don't have their own
coffee shops, so that leaves us as the suppliers. Our policy has been
abused, misused, totally perverted."

As business has boomed, many of the Dutch coffee shops - dingy, hippie
establishments in the '80s and '90s with a few plastic tubs of
marijuana on the shelves - have become slick shops serving freshly
squeezed orange juice and coffee in fine china.

The Easy Going Coffee Shop has a computer console at the door where
identification documents proving that customers are 18 or older are
scanned and recorded. Tiny pictures on driver's licenses are blown up
to life-size on a screen, so guards can get a good look at them.
Behind the teller windows, workers still cut the hashish with a big
kitchen knife, but all sales are recorded on computerized cash registers.

Mr. Bot's ruling last month is only an early step in determining
whether Maastricht can enforce a Dutch-only policy. A final ruling by
the full court is expected by the end of the year.

But Mr. Bot's finding, a veritable tirade on the evils of drugs,
surprised many legal scholars, who expected the European Union's open
market rules to trump any public order arguments, as they have in
other cases. Sweden, for instance, which has a long history of
struggling with alcohol abuse, was obliged to take down most of its
anti-alcohol laws restricting store hours and sales, as they were seen
as impinging on free trade.

Polls show that a majority of the Dutch still believe that the coffee
shops should exist. But the Netherlands once had 1,500 of them; now,
there are about 700. And every year, the numbers decline, according to
Nicole Maalste, a professor at the University of Tilburg who has
written a book on the subject. "Slowly, slowly they are being closed
down by inventing new rules, and new rules," Ms. Maalste said.

Much of the criminality associated with the coffee shops, experts say,
revolves around what people here call the "back door" problem. The
government regulates what goes on in coffee shops. But it has never
legalized or regulated how the stores get the drugs they sell - an
issue that states in the United States that have legalized medical
marijuana are just beginning to grapple with.

In recent years, the tremendous volume of sales created by foreigners
has prompted an industry of cultivating cannabis and other drugs
within the Netherlands - some estimate that it is now a $2 billion a
year business - much of it tangled in organized crime and money
laundering operations, experts say.

Advocates for legalized sales and coffee shop owners argue that trying
to restrict foreigners will only encourage them to buy illegally in
the streets. They also say that coffee shops have other selling
points: they pay 450 million euros a year in taxes and provide
thousands of jobs.

Mr. Deckers, the shop association spokesman, said coffee shop owners
were so skeptical that the European Union would allow restrictions on
sales based on nationality that they encouraged the city to get a
ruling on the subject. They doubt Mr. Bot's arguments will stand. "We
know he is wrong," Mr. Deckers said. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake