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Dutch crack down on marijuana tourism

And what's more, Dutch youth aren't even interested in smoking weed.

“It’s not as exciting [for Dutch kids] as it is in other countries and we had education together with the tolerant attitude, so our kids know about drugs,” said Veling.

“Our customers are mainly from England and the United States, but because of the economic crisis the percentage of continental Europeans has risen,” he said. “Last summer we saw the first wave of Chinese middle class, that’s a very promising market.”

Veling is perhaps unique among coffee shop owners in that he is also an active member and one-time city councilor with the conservative Christian Democratic Appeal party of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, which has done much to clamp down on the Dutch dope trade in recent years.

Coffee shops have seen the maximum amount they can sell customers reduced from 30 grams to 5 grams. In 2007 a ban on cannabis outlets serving alcohol was enforced, meaning coffee shop owners had to choose between booze or pot — which explains why the strongest drinks at Cafe 420 are coffee, tea and chocolate. Moreover, advertising for cannabis is banned, so while souvenir shops selling T-shirts festooned with marijuana-leaf designs abound, coffee shops are not allowed to use the image.

Many city councils prohibit the opening of new coffee shops and are quick to shut down any that break the rules. A ban on smoking tobacco in all Dutch cafes and bars hit the coffee shops hard when it was introduced in July 2008, since cannabis cigarettes are often mixed with tobacco. Now the rule is widely ignored.

"There are all kinds of ridiculous regulations,” said Fredrick Polak, a veteran campaigner for more liberal drug laws. “It does not work, it is counterproductive … the state has no business interfering with individual grown-up citizens and what they want to put in their bodies."

Polak, a white-haired, 67-year-old psychiatrist who works at Amsterdam’s drug dependency unit, said Dutch authorities have caved into pressure from neighboring nations concerned that so many young people were buying cannabis in the Netherlands to take back home.

French, Belgian and German authorities have been particularly worried about a proliferation of outlets in border cities, so the Dutch government has sought to crack down on “drug tourism.”

The cities of Bergen op Zoom and Rosendaal near the Belgian border closed down six of their eight coffee shops last year after residents complained about rowdy behavior from an estimated 25,000 drug tourists passing through every week.

In the southeastern city of Maastricht, authorities have proposed making coffee shops members-only clubs, effectively banning foreign day-trippers. The country’s largest coffee shop, Checkpoint in the southern border town of Terneuzen, was closed down in 2008 at a time when it was reportedly serving 3,000 customers a day.

Polak complains that criminal elements continue to play a leading role in the cannabis trade due to an anomaly in the laws: While the retailing is tolerated, wholesale trade remains illegal, meaning coffee shop owners often have to get their supplies from criminal networks, which are also involved in illegal exports of the drug and violent turf wars.

“With our system, for people who want to smoke marijuana it’s very pleasant, but on the supply side here there is no control, it’s still completely illegal, so the wrong people make very much money," Polak said.