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Tue, Feb 25, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Germans wear out welcome at Dutch cafes

HIGH TIMES Thousands of Germans go across the border every day to take advantage of the fabled coffee-shop culture in the Netherlands, drawn by pot

THE GUARDIAN , VENLO,THE NETHERLANDS

Fed up with thrill-seeking German drug tourists, the Netherlands has decided to turn the hundreds of coffee shops which line its border into German-free zones.

The plan -- which would involve ordering coffee shops in areas bordering Germany to serve only Dutch residents in possession of valid "membership cards" -- is causing a stir.

But the justice ministry and local officials say they will press ahead. The problem, they insist, is becoming unbearable.

Thousands of Germans visit every day to take advantage of the Netherlands' fabled coffee shop culture. The result is that dozens of towns have been transformed into open-air drug supermarkets, stalked by aggressive drug dealers and criminals.

"Thousands of young Germans, especially schoolchildren, cross into the Netherlands," said Victor Holtus, a justice ministry spokesman.

"One of the options we're looking at is to have coffee shops which only serve people who live in the Netherlands. That's what we want to do."

The problem, he says, is at its worst in Venlo. Nestled on the banks of the river Maas in the south of the country, this town of 90,000 people is just five minutes' drive from the German border and is awash with drugs, dealers and tourists. Five million Germans live within 48km, and as many as 4,000 of them visit daily.

On the Maaskade embankment, coffee shop windows are packed with books on drug use and drug paraphernalia.

On the street, dealers or "runners" compete for business.

As soon as a new car pulls up the young men stroll up to the window. "Hashish, marijuana, cocaine?" one dealer asks a German couple in an Audi, before making an exchange.

"It's not allowed over there, but here it's tolerated," says Jamal, 25, one of the runners. "This whole trade runs right along the border from north to south. For those who smoke, I can tell you, Venlo is paradise."

The Dutch government's plan to get rid of the German drug tourists is angering the dealers.

"They can't do it, and if they do, everyone and everything will go underground and on to the streets," says one coffee shop owner.

Dealers are also scornful of claims that their business creates a threatening atmosphere, and accuse the authorities -- who closed 50 illegal coffee shops last year in Venlo -- of being too heavy-handed.

"This government has been very difficult," says Soma, 20, who describes himself as a political refugee from Somalia and a drug dealer. "People only want to make money here. The government is not fair. They just want to be more in control so that they can tax us. It's all about money."

Dutch law stipulates that up to 5gm of drugs can be sold over the counter in a licensed coffee shop to anyone over 18, but many German customers are in search of much larger quantities.

The runners and the illegal coffee shops, of which there are estimated to be around 65 in Venlo, are therefore plugging a large gap in the market.

As night falls Oase, one of the town's official coffee shops, is doing a roaring trade. The lights are dimmed, German rap blares from the radio and young Germans have collapsed into the blue and beige sofas.

Although the two Dutchmen work fast distributing the hashish and pre-rolled joints in little plastic sealed bags, the queue never seems to go down.

Outside, Leopoldus, a retired solicitor in his 60s, peers into the window. "I don't like it at all," he says. "We are liberal and open-minded, but you have to make a distinction between the provinces here in the south and the west. We are more conservative here. I can understand soft drugs, but these people are doing hard drugs too."

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