Selling soft drugs is not a right even in the Netherlands
Two Dutch towns on the Netherlands' border with Belgium have had enough. Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom are closing down the towns' cannabis-selling 'coffee shops', although the practice of selling small amounts of the soft drug in such cafes has been tolerated for years. This drastic action is necessary because the problems caused by the coffee shops' dealers and customers are getting out of hand.
“What else could we do?” Roosendaal’s mayor Michel Marijnen (Christian Democrat) asks while fellow mayor Han Polman (liberal D66 party) from neighbouring Bergen op Zoom joins him in his office at the town hall. They have been putting their heads together for the last five years in order to halt the steady stream of drugs tourists to their cities but to no avail.
Neither mayor thinks that more policing is the answer and nor is moving the coffee shops nearer to the border, away from their towns.
Roosendaal’s four coffee shops each receive about 440 customers a day. In Bergen op Zoom, which also has four, the number is around 400. The mayors think this is more than enough. Research says that anything over 150 customers increases the risk of criminal networks being formed. Neither is it a good idea to combat problems caused by drugs tourism in one part of the town and facilitate it on an industrial park in another, the mayors say.
Until all legal impediments to closure have been dealt with, owners of coffee shops will need to adhere to stricter rules. People who are caught with less then 5 grammes of soft drugs will be registered and those who carry between 5 and 30 grammes will get higher fines than in the rest of the country. “We are exploring all possible avenues”, Marijnen says.
The move has not been welcomed by councillors in neighbouring Breda and Etten-Leur, which also have coffee shops. “What about us?”, they said. “But we are responsible for the safety of our towns”, says Marijnen who calls the decision to close the coffee shops “pragmatic” rather than “ideological”.
But is it legal? According to Bruno van Ravels, a professor at Nijmegen University, the answer is yes. During the 1990s, Hulst, in the southern Dutch province of Zeeland, closed its coffee shops after being advised by Van Ravels in his capacity as a lawyer.
“The Dutch policy of tolerance is very complicated”, says Van Ravels. “The law prohibits the sale of drugs, including soft drugs. But many mayors decided to tolerate a small number of coffee shops where trade is permitted with the provison that they cater for a “local need”. At the same time they separated the sale of hard drugs from that of soft drugs. This is how it’s been in the Netherlands since 1976.”
Mayors, police and the public prosecution office do not act as long as coffee shops do not cause problems and stick to the rules. Coffee shops are forbidden to advertise their wares, for instance, or sell drugs to minors. Under the rules that were tightened during the 1990s, coffee shops are allowed to sell no more than five grammes of soft drugs per person and are allowed no more than 500 grammes on the premises. And the public prosecutor has got tougher on councils bending the rules, says Van Ravel.
“Selling drugs is not a right,” says mayor Marijnen. Coffee shop owners should be thankful we’ve put up with them for so long.”
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