Tue, Jun 24, 2008 - Page 16 News List

[HEALTH] Tobacco ban has unique implications for Dutch 'coffee shops'

By Gerald de Hemptinne  /  AFP , THE HAGUE

The notorious Dutch "coffee shop" faces a unique conundrum under a new public smoking ban: its patrons can still light up their cannabis joints but no longer if blended with tobacco.

The Netherlands, which tolerates the use of “soft” drugs, will banish tobacco smoke from restaurants, cafes and other public places from July 1.

But as it follows the example of other European Union members in curbing smoking for public health reasons, the country finds itself in a singular position as the only one to allow, since 1976, marijuana use in licensed cafes.

While the new law does not prohibit the smoking of cannabis in coffee shops, owners are coming up new strategies to stay afloat in a country where users traditionally prefer their cannabis joints mixed with tobacco.

The Any Day coffee shop in Amsterdam has introduced a novel gadget that produces a new kind of high to keep clients’ attention.

The machine, like vaporizers sometimes used for medicinal purposes, works like a water pipe but without combustion. It transforms the cannabis into vapor, which is then inhaled.

With no tobacco and no paper, “the vapor broadens the user’s thoughts without rendering him apathetic,” explained its creator Evert, who did not want to give his full name. “People thank me for having changed their lives.”

The Cremers pub in The Hague, which allows patrons to smoke cannabis at the bar counter, is planning a segregated smoking section to comply with the law and keep its clients happy.

Many others are likely to follow suit, provided they have the space. But some may have to change to over-the-counter sales.

Former coffee shop Boerejongens, which means “young farmers,” on the outskirts of Amsterdam, shifted its focus a few months ago in anticipation of the new law, retaining only its sales outlet.

It is transforming its former marijuana smoking area into a coffee house — the original kind.

A handful of cannabis buyers are drinking coffee while preparing joints to smoke later. The coffee is still only a fraction of the business, said Boerejongens manager Martial van Bennekom.

“The vast majority of our clients nowadays just buy the grass and leave,” he said.

Owners of some coffee shops said that by going this route, Boerejongens had rid itself of its former bad clients — those who spend a whole day without ordering a single drink or sometimes get aggressive.

And they fear this welcome spin-off would give ammunition to the opponents of Dutch coffee shops — conceivably supporting the argument that there was no need for them anymore.

Marijuana users appear unfazed by the changes in the pipeline.

They would buy it and smoke at home, several enthusiasts shrugged indifferently as they dragged on their joints.

Sociologist Nicole Maalste, however, warned this could hold a risk in itself.

“The coffee shop is a place where one learns to smoke [cannabis] among people who know what they are doing,” she said. “It is a place where help can be available to those who use too much.” If coffee shops are reduced to mere vending points, that would mean the end of the “center of control and assistance” for users, she said.

Youngsters might also “turn to dealers who will introduce them to other, harder drugs,” said the owner of the Any Day coffee shop, who asked that only his first name, Max, be used.

Many coffee shop owners, while ready to try chartering a new course, doubt the ability of the authorities to enforce the new law for a lack of qualified inspectors.

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