Amsterdam Shops Selling Marijuana to Stay Open

Amsterdam’s 220 coffee shops, where marijuana and hashish are openly sold and consumed, will remain open next year in spite of a new Dutch law meant to reduce drug tourism, the city’s mayor said in an interview published Thursday. The mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, told the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant that he had made the decision after considering the unintended consequences that would arise from a ban, including a revival of black-market trade. He also noted that the current system allowed for the government to monitor the quality of “soft” drugs and to limit access to the coffee shops to those 18 and older, something that would be impossible if the trade were again to become clandestine.

“The 1.5 million tourists will not say, ‘Then no more marijuana,’ ” Mr. van der Laan told De Volkskrant, according to a transcript of the interview provided by his office. “They will swarm all over the city looking for drugs,” he said. “This would lead to more robberies, quarrels about fake drugs and no control of the quality of drugs on the market. Everything we have worked toward would be lost to misery.” The Dutch have long tolerated the coffee shops, although the sale of marijuana remains technically illegal. But tolerance has come under fire, partly over concern about the criminality that surrounds the supply, which originates in places like Afghanistan, Lebanon and Morocco.

But it was a growing traffic nuisance in southern municipalities like Maastricht, where Belgians and Germans drove to buy drugs, that proved the tipping point. The Dutch government announced two years ago that sales to nonresidents would be prohibited nationwide on Jan. 1, 2013. Only Dutch residents who registered with a coffee shop would be legally allowed to go to the coffee shops, which were to be turned into members-only clubs. The first phase of the ban, affecting only the south, took effect on May 1. The results have been mixed, with Maastricht reporting an increase in the number of street dealers, but less car traffic. A plan to require buyers to have a “weed pass” to buy soft drugs was dropped as the number of drug tourists fell sharply.

The law has always been controversial in major Dutch cities outside of the south, where officials have warned that they would lose control of the situation if the trade were driven underground. The central government has not withdrawn the planned prohibition of drug sales to foreigners, so Michael Veling, the spokesman for the Dutch Cannabis Retailers Association, said the mayor “might have spoken out of turn to provoke a reaction in the government.” He noted, however, that the incoming cabinet of Prime Minister Mark Rutte had begun backing away from the government’s previous stance, saying now that the ban on foreigners buying cannabis would remain intact but that local councils could be allowed to have the last word. “I’m guessing that behind the curtains, it’s already been arranged,” Mr. Veling said.

Sentina van der Meer, a spokeswoman for the Dutch Justice Ministry, quoted a ministry statement saying, “Changes to the new policy have not been finalized.” She said she expected the new cabinet to give the final word after its installation next week. Mayor van der Laan’s office said he had assured the government “that criminality and related problems around coffee shops will be strongly addressed and that marijuana use among young people will be further countered.”

In the newspaper interview, Mr. van der Laan denied that he was acting as “an errand boy for coffee shop owners,” and promised that he would strictly enforce rules regarding sale to minors and the strength of the soft drugs sold. It is not, he added, a question of the potential loss of tourism revenue from the international visitors to the city’s coffee shops. “Flat economic motives” play absolutely no role, he said, adding, “The 1.5 million tourists are not visiting only the coffee shops.”

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