Sun, Oct 16, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Dutch fear threat to liberalism in government curbs on ‘soft drugs’

The Christian Democrats want to restrict access to cannabis, arguing that it raises crime and brings in unwanted soft-drugs tourists, but critics don’t buy it

By Sara Webb  /  Reuters, AMSTERDAM

The Netherlands is embarking on a crusade against its multibillion-euro marijuana industry, with significant implications both for its economy and its liberal approach to life.

Along with tighter control of legalized prostitution and a swing to the right in attitudes toward immigration and Islam in recent years, the clampdown is seen as further evidence of an erosion of tolerance in a country known for its liberal social policies.

The push to clamp down on soft drugs has come mainly from the Christian Democrats, the junior partner in the minority government and one of the larger parties in a fragmented political landscape.

“There’s clearly a shift in the moral debate. It’s all about the culture of control,” University of Amsterdam criminology professor Dirk Korf said.

Instantly recognizable from the sickly sweet, burnt-leaf smell that wafts out onto the street, the Netherlands’ world-renowned “coffee shops” are almost as common as supermarkets in big cities, such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and in certain border towns.

Like trained sommeliers, the staff or “bud tenders” are experts on the flavors and after-effects of whatever is on the menu — White Widow, Vanilla Kush or hazers like Amnesia, “known for its extreme, almost paranoid psychedelic high, with an unforgettable strong fruity taste and smell.”

Counter staff do a brisk trade in plastic sachets of loose grass, ready-rolled joints and chunks of hashish for those who want take-away.

The Netherlands tolerates the sale of up to 5g per person per day of marijuana and hashish in the controlled environment of the coffee shops. It also tolerates the home cultivation of marijuana plants, within a limit of five plants per person, but any cultivation larger than that is illegal.

Strong demand has spawned secret cannabis plantations that provide a so-called “back-door” supply to the coffee shops and are a headache for Dutch authorities who have to find and raid them.

DRUG TOURISTS

On a typical Saturday evening, the coffee shops in central Amsterdam are packed with smokers. The clientele is middle class, the voices mostly foreign — Italian, Spanish, French, German, English.

Concerned about this influx of soft-drugs tourists, not to mention what it sees as the associated crime, nuisance and health risks, the Christian Democratic Appeal wants to see the country’s 700 or so coffee shops shut down, but for the moment is settling for introducing restrictions on their activities.

A measure expected to be passed in parliament by the end of this year will have coffee shops operate as members-only clubs, meaning that only local residents will be eligible to register for “weed passes,” effectively barring foreigners from buying soft drugs.

Already, some cities have introduced tighter restrictions, limiting the coffee shops’ proximity to schools or relocating them to the outskirts. On Oct. 1, coffee shops in the southeastern city of Maastricht banned all foreigners except for neighboring Germans and Belgians, as a first step toward introduction of weed passes.

Korf says there is little justification for the clampdown, with scant evidence that the Dutch public supports the change.

“No serious polls have been conducted, we don’t know if opinions about coffee shops have even changed,” Korf said. “Before coffee shops, we had street dealing; they were selling marijuana in the street and ripping off tourists. The whole drug problem is nothing compared to [what we had in] the 1980s, 1990s — we don’t have a heroin problem.”

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