Dutch coffee shops fear coalition crackdown

By Ben Shore
BBC News, Amsterdam

image captionMore than cappuccinos are on the menu in some Dutch coffee shops

"This is old Dutch skunk…it gets you medium stoned."

Jason den Enting, the general manager of the Dampkring chain of coffee shops in Amsterdam, is giving me his sales patter.

"It's a little bit physical, makes you relaxed…"

His enthusiasm is obvious, but beneath it he is worried.

The traditional Dutch tolerance of the sale of small amounts of marijuana through licensed "coffee shops" is under severe strain.

Coffee shops emerged in the mid 1970s. The idea was to create a safe environment for adults to smoke cannabis but other illegal substances were banned.

They have actually been under pressure since the 1990s, mainly from licensing laws.

At their peak there were around 1,200 but the total currently stands at 700.

Political battle

And now, from Mr den Enting's perspective, the knives are really out.

On 14 October a new coalition government was sworn in. Part of the coalition agreement stipulates that coffee shops "will become private clubs". In other words, no tourists.

"[It's] simple politics. They have problems and they only talk about Muslim kids and coffee shops. It won't put us out of business but some people could lose their jobs."

image captionSelling small amounts of cannabis in coffee shops is tolerated, but attitudes are changing

And while Dampkring could survive, others might not.

Unsurprisingly, the customers I met took a dim view of the proposals.

Isabelle, from Worcestershire, was typical: "It would change the whole vibe, people would be less chilled out, turn to alcohol probably".

But for many in the Netherlands the new stricter policy is part of a battle to protect their quality of life. And the small town of Roosendaal is on the frontline.

Just a few miles from the border with Belgium, by 2007 it had become a centre for drug tourists with 12,000 arriving every week. This in an area with a population of just 10,000.

The council had thought the problem arose from unlicensed "selling points". But research from 2008 revealed that 90% of the drugs tourists were in fact simply coming for the regulated coffee shops. The solution was simple - close them all down.

Core contradiction

By spring 2010 the drugs tourists had all but disappeared and so too had some very profitable businesses.

A tourist might spend 30 euros (£26) per visit, implying weekly revenues for the town's eight coffee shops of up to 324,000 euros (£283,000).

image captionBen van der Hoeven says Roosendaal has been given a new lease of life

Ben van der Hoeven, a local official, shows me Molenstraat (Mill Street) where the coffee shops were massed. It is a five-metre-wide road and the young tourists driving along here caused mayhem.

"There were parking problems, intimidation," he said. "Now we are really giving back Molenstraat to the inhabitants of Roosendaal. It's a shopping street again."

It is exactly the grim experience of towns like Roosendaal that has made coffee shops such a target for the government.

But banning tourists from buying soft drugs will not resolve the core contradiction created by the toleration policy, according to Tim Boekhout van Solinge, a criminologist at the University of Utrecht.

"Coffee shops are allowed to sell small quantities of cannabis to consumers, but how do they get the products? They have to buy it on the illegal market."

The illegality of cannabis is a surprise to many people from outside the Netherlands but it is a fact that creates several anomalies.

The first is that while thousands of people are happily smoking the drug in coffee shops, the police are busy trying to restrict the supply.

Another criminologist, Nicole Maalste from the University of Tilburg, says marijuana producers are a currently a top priority for the police, and it shows - prices have doubled in the last couple of years.

Shades of grey

Some coffee shop owners have even been arrested on their way to work, caught with their daily stock of dope.

But perhaps the most intriguing element of the coffee shop conundrum is that the Dutch cannot legislate their way out of it.

Dr Boekhout van Solinge points out that on four occasions there has been a parliamentary majority for the full legalisation of production and each time the government has refused to adopt new laws.

"This is a small country and there is the almost constant pressure from the US not to liberalise further," he said.

For some though, this indicates Dutch society is finally waking up to the dangers of its traditional liberalism.

Among them is Nicolien Van Vroonhoven, from the Christian Democratic Alliance, part of the governing coalition.

She cites the problems of addiction and the ease with which soft drug use can turn into the use of hard drugs.

"In tolerating the coffee shops you deny all the problems caused by cannabis."

Full prohibition though is still a long way off and resistance to the current "members only" proposals could end in court.

But the debate in Holland does at least highlight the imperfections of the country's policy.

Coffee shop owners have always operated in shades of grey, it seems now the Dutch public wants things in black or white.

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