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Haze clears over Dutch cannabis law

Smoking pot in the Netherlands is now a city-by-city choice for tourists.

Maastricht coffee shopsEnlarge
Jay, a 29-year-old from London, lights a cannabis joint in a coffee shop on Nov. 1, 2012, in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The ban on foreigners entering coffee shops came into effect last May in the Netherlands' southern provinces, but after intense lobbying by city authorities in Amsterdam it's now up to each city to decide how to apply the cannabis laws. (Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

MAASTRICHT, Netherlands — Club 69 has seen better days.

On a wet winter afternoon, the place was empty. The palm-tree murals went un-admired, the elaborate smoke-extraction system was turned off and the tupperware containers of cannabis sat unsmoked on the shelves.
Owner Henk Peelen says his "coffee shop" — the Dutch term for a cannabis cafe — has fallen victim to laws that came into force last year to stop foreigners from taking advantage of the Netherlands' tolerant approach to soft drugs.
"Because of the ban on customers who came from abroad, I had to sack all my staff, 11 people," he said.
About half of Maastricht's 14 coffee shops have shut down since May, when the new rules took effect. Others have seen a radical decline in customers and Peelen says almost 400 people have lost their job across this southern city.
"It's costing the city a lot of money," he complains.
Amsterdam is a two-hour drive north of Maastricht. In the heart of the capital's red-light district, the scene in its best-known coffee shop could hardly be a bigger contrast. The cheerful, international crowd spilling out of the canal-side Bulldog is an illustration of the complexity of Dutch drug laws.
The ban on foreigners entering coffee shops came into force last May in the Netherlands' southern provinces and was due to take effect across the whole country on Jan. 1, limiting access to marijuana outlets to Dutch residents who register to obtain a "weed pass."
However, after intense lobbying by city authorities in Amsterdam, which feared a loss of tourist revenue, a new Dutch government elected in September agreed to change tack. The law still stands, but it's now up to each city to decide how to apply it.
"We would like to inform you that coffee shops are OPEN in Amsterdam," the Bulldog proclaims on its website.
That may be good news for tourists hoping to chill out with a toke after a trek around the flower market or Van Gogh Museum, but not for the weed lovers of Maastricht.
"It's death penalty for cannabis culture," says Roger Willemsen, whose Organic Earth store sells cannabis seeds and other products for customers seeking to grow their own. "It's the world turned around. Instead of going forward they are going backward."
The city hall in this pretty riverside university city of 122,000 — close to the Netherlands' borders with Belgium and Germany — sees things differently.
Mayor Onno Hoes had lobbied for the new restrictions, complaining Maastricht was being overrun by rowdy foreign youngsters flooding into town to get stoned.
"In Amsterdam there are tourists going to visit the museums and the canals who go to the Bulldog or some other coffee shop to smoke some weed. Here you had people coming in just to visit four or five coffee shops and buy up the maximum amount of weed," explains Gertjan Bos, the mayor's spokesman. "They were noisy, unruly, a nuisance."
Bos says the weed pass has successfully halted the flow of an estimated 1.6 million foreign visitors a year who came to the city for pot.
Although the coffee shop association calculates the decline in dope-smoking visitors has wiped out income of about $185 million, Bos denies there's been any significant impact on the city's wider economy.
However, he acknowledges that the weed pass idea has not been entirely successful. Provisions designed to turn the cannabis outlets into private clubs where all clients must register as members have scared away Dutch customers, forcing the closure of coffee shops.
Recognizing the problem, the city hall announced in September it was dropping the registration requirement so customers need only show their Dutch passport or local residence papers to gain access to coffee shops.
Peelen, however, is not convinced.
He says Club 69 — located across the street from Maastricht University's arts and social science faculty and next door to an "erotic discount center" — has enough customers to keep afloat, but doubts others will reopen unless an ongoing legal challenge forces a change in city policy.
Meanwhile, he claims the new restrictions on coffee shops have led to an "explosion" of illegal street dealing.
"There is more criminality on the street, more aggression. People feel unsafe. What sort of first impression does that give to people coming from abroad?" Peelen asks.
Bos counters that tough police action has cracked down on street trading while the new measures to encourage Dutch pot smokers to return to the coffee shops will further undercut the illegal dealers.
A short walk from Club 69, Willemsen's emporium for pot cultivators is packed with lamps, fertilizers and sacks of soil. There's also a baffling array of seed varieties ranging from the modest African Widow, going for just $13 for a packet of 10, to the likes of G13 Haze New York Diesel retailing at $185.
Willemsen says the sale of cannabis seeds is completely legal and the grow-your-own business is booming since the weed pass was introduced.
"Of course it depends on what they do with them. We sell to customers who maybe want to feed them to their canaries or grow the plants for a windbreak in the garden," he says with a smile.
"There's a Dutch mentality, a lot of people thought it was tolerance, but it's not tolerance, it's creativity. People in Holland know the rules, but there's always a way to get around them."

Roger Willemsen More than 1 year ago
Long live the pot culture!
Malcolm Kyle More than 1 year ago
Legally regulated (manufacture, distribution and consumption) of marijuana is coming to a state near you in 2013: CALIFORNIA “These laws just don't make sense anymore. It’s shocking, from my perspective, the number of people that we all know who are recreational marijuana users… these are incredibly upstanding citizens: Leaders in our community, and exceptional people.” —Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom (preparing the way for Governor Jerry Brown to initiate proceedings to legalize and regulate marijuana through the state legislature) MAINE Maine's legislature is moving on a legalization-and-regulation bill that could bring the state $8 million a year in new revenue. ''The people are far ahead of the politicians on this. Just in the past few weeks we've seen the culture shift dramatically.'' —Rep. Diane Russell of Portland, District 120 (Occupation: Public Relations Consultant) NEW YORK "Today, marijuana possession is the number one arrest in New York City." citing the harmful outcomes of these arrests – racial disparities, stigma, fiscal waste, criminalization – and calling on the legislature to act:  “It’s not fair, it’s not right. It must end, and it must end now.” —New York Governor Andrew Cuomo NEVADA "Thinking we're not going to have it is unrealistic. It's just a question of how and when" —Assemblyman Richard (Tick) Segerblom of Las Vegas, elected to the Nevada State Senate in 2012 OREGON "We have decades of evidence that says prohibition does not work and it's counterproductive. it's a matter of dollars and common sense. There's a source of revenue that's reasonable that is rational that is the right policy choice for our state. We are going to get there on legalization." —Peter Buckley, co-chair of the Oregon state legislature's budget committee. PENNSYLVANIA “Like alcohol, legalization and regulation will make marijuana safer. Each year we not only waste a similar amount ($325.36 million), we leave several hundred million dollars on the table in taxes that we do not collect because marijuana is illegal, rather than regulated and taxed. This horrific policy must end. It is a moral imperative that Pennsylvania wakes up and ends prohibition now.” —Democrat State Sen. Daylin Leach, while announcing plans to introduce legislation that would legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania. RHODE ISLAND Rhode Island is also expected to legally regulate marijuana through the state legislature instead of a popular referendum. ''Our prohibition has failed, Legalizing and taxing it, just as we did to alcohol, is the way to do it.'' —Rep. Edith Ajello, chairs the House Committee on Judiciary and is a member of the House Oversight Committee. VERMONT In November 2012, the state's Democratic governor, Peter Shumlin, cruised to re-election while strongly backing marijuana decriminalization. And the city of Burlington passed a resolution in November 2012 calling for an end to prohibition – with 70 percent support. ALASKA Most Alaskans already have a clear view of things from their own back garden. Personal use and possession of Marijuana in Alaskan homes has been effectively legal since 1975.
Yanic Ratkiewicz More than 1 year ago
i left amsterdam onthat day!
r More than 1 year ago
Did we label a shipment of puppet government to Amsterdam? Shoot, it was supposed to be Afghanistan. ;/ sorry, USA
Michael N More than 1 year ago
man you had the pot trade in your hands, you could have made billions Amsterdam but you have fools that govern you.
Michael N More than 1 year ago
to late Amsterdam america is legalizing it .now you will lose all the pot trade ,your own elected officials screwed you over hahaha.
Craig Fox More than 1 year ago
ok first off your so dumb its painfull. 1. they have made billions and will make more in the furture. 2. its not amsterdam in the whole of holland. 3 america arnt legalzing it and never will because of the paper trade and the medical trade. 4 holland will never loose it because they have the best weed in the world 5 the dutch goverment is the best and most stable in the world you wana talk about being screwed obamcare? trying to take your guns? making the world hate your people because they keep invading place sir i suggest you do some research before you comment on things
Mel Pol More than 1 year ago
Laws against weed increases police power and usefulness. The fear of being frisked keeps otherwise wild and unruly youngsters under control.
Jess More than 1 year ago
Laws against weed tie up valuable criminal justice resources in prosecuting victimless "crimes," leaving our neighborhoods a playground for domestic abusers, child molesters, abductors, rapists, thieves of all stripe, illegal gun sellers, and other criminals. Prohibition encourages the use of alcohol and harder drugs, because they are not as easily detected in drug testing. Alcohol and harder drugs lead to violence and crime, as well as physical and mental addictions, which lead to even more long-term violence and crime. It makes as much sense to keep "otherwise wild and unruly youngsters under control" by outlawing cough syrup as it does to outlaw marijuana. You, sir or madam, clearly haven't thought this through.