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

Rotterdam City Council recently distributed “scratch and sniff cards” to households, hoping that concerned citizens would tip off the police if they recognized the smell of illegal cannabis plantations in the neighborhood.

PUSHBACK AT HOME

There is plenty of opposition to the crackdown. Dutch smokers do not welcome the idea of having to register for weed passes.

“Many of my customers are locals, artists, writers, doctors, lawyers, professionals. They don’t want their name on a register — they don’t know who could see it or use it. So they may go to other sources on the street,” said Paula Baten, manager of the Siberie coffee shop in central Amsterdam. “This government is more Christian, more right-wing. They don’t want drugs, but they forget about the effects of alcohol.”

Already, there is talk of how foreigners can circumvent the new rules, for example by asking Dutch citizens to buy soft drugs on their behalf to take away, and concern that dealing in soft drugs will go onto the street.

Some politicians oppose the proposals. Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan says restricting the activities of coffee shops would lead to greater health risks, nuisance and drug dealing on the streets. As mayor, he could simply choose not to enforce the weed pass regulations.

“At the moment, the mayor is in conference with the minister to convince him that the measures regarding coffee shops will be counterproductive for Amsterdam,” the mayor’s office said in a statement.

Others cite the likely economic impact.

The Netherlands, like other European countries, has had to introduce austerity measures and cut spending in the wake of the credit crisis, when it pumped 40 billion euros (US$54.92 billion) into rescuing financial institutions.

Tax revenue from the coffee shops is estimated at about 400 million euros a year. Studies by the finance ministry and academics estimated that if the Netherlands legalized the “back-door” supply, bringing it “above board,” it could collect as much as an additional 400 million to 850 million euros a year, including savings on the cost of law enforcement.

Then there is the tourist revenue.

In Maastricht, which gets a lot of day tourists because it is so close to the German and Belgian borders, a study commissioned by an association of coffee shop owners calculated that visitors to the city’s coffee shops spent about 119 million euros a year, mostly on shopping and eating out.

A study by Korf found that tourists who visited coffee shops in central Amsterdam had similar spending habits to other tourists, and were just as likely to spend 200 euros or more on a hotel room, or splash out at smart restaurants or nightclubs.

The Bulldog and Barney’s — the big names in the industry — run coffee shop chains, and many coffee shop owners also make money from lodgings and related businesses.

Hundreds of tourists attend the annual Cannabis Cup award for the best new strains, and the local edition of Time Out runs monthly marijuana reviews.

Jackie Woerlee, who runs customized cannabis tours, said that among her recent tour guests were members of one of the Middle East royal families, who rented a luxury apartment for several weeks and spent several thousand euros shopping at luxury stores.

“Customers might easily spend 100 euros in a coffee shop, but it’s not just that, it’s the hotels, the eating out, renting apartments,” Woerlee said. “These people spend.”

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