AMSTERDAM FALLS OUT OF LOVE WITH COFFEE SHOPS AS LIBERAL STANCE ON DRUGS BEGINS TO CRUMBLE
Amsterdam falls out of love with coffee shops as liberal stance on drugs begins to crumble
For the past 18 years Michael Veling and his staff have been serving up such delights as White Widow and Blueberry in his wood-panelled coffee shop in the heart of Amsterdam.
For as little as 805 (UKP 3.50) visitors can smoke a cannabis joint in Cafe De Kuil and sip a beer while listening to music ranging from Frank Zappa to Mozart.
The 50-year-old bar owner and political activist said: "My main concern is to make sure there is a good mix of people at my coffee shop and that they get the best quality grass and marijuana."
But the Dutch coffee shop system is under threat. According to one of the country's leading drug specialists and a government adviser, cannabis coffee shops and cafe-bars will be extinct within five years.
The number of cannabis outlets has already declined from a peak of nearly 1,500 to about 750. Only about a fifth of Dutch towns and cities have coffee shops, and that number is shrinking.
The clampdown is being blamed on a more conservative attitude by the coalition government and local mayors, and pressure from other European Union members who disapprove of the Dutch approach.
This shift in attitude was acknowledged by the United Nations earlier this week. The annual report by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which is part of the UN, noted that the Netherlands'
government had informed them of a "crucial and significant change in its policy on cannabis". It said that the Dutch government has promised to take tougher action against drug tourists, street dealing, cannabis growing, and the coffee shops. The report stated: "The [Dutch] government notes that coffee shops may discredit the drug policy of the country in general."
Professor Hamid Ghodse, president of the INCB, said: "There has been a crucial and significant change in the Dutch cannabis policy. They now say for the first time that cannabis is not harmless and that coffee shops are not blameless."
Among the measures being introduced is a pilot scheme in the province of Limburg which bans foreigners from buying drugs in coffee shops, to kill the trade in tourists coming over the nearby borders with Germany and Belgium. A study is being made of strong forms of cannabis, which is likely to lead to a ban of these varieties. In addition the police are targeting people who grow cannabis at home.
The law on coffee shops, the first of which opened in 1975, is confusing, and many believe nonsensical. Cannabis use is not illegal, but possession of the drug is against the law. However, anyone caught with less than 30g of the substance is not prosecuted. Anyone aged over 18 can buy up to five grams of cannabis in a coffee shop, which is allowed to hold a stock of up to 500g. But technically the shop owner is breaking the law and can be prosecuted for buying large quantities of cannabis in the first place and transporting it to the shop.
Supporters of the coffee shop system fear that a collapse of the outlets would lead to drug dealing and cultivation going underground, which would play into the hands of criminals.
August de Loor, an independent consultant who advises the Dutch government on drug policy, said: "The changes have been brought about by the influence of the Yankees [the United States], Brussels and the EU. The Dutch approach is usually very pragmatic.
"But in the past four years things have started to change and there is a more conservative approach. The control of coffee shops has become much more strict. The police are checking up on them more and there is much more strict interpretation of the rules. More and more mayors are banning coffee shops from their cities. I think in four or five years'
time there will be no more coffee shops left in Holland."
He added: "We have a conservative government at the moment but it's nothing to do with the left or right. It's a moral thing. It's a sign of the times."
But Mr Veling is unperturbed by talk of the death of the coffee shop.
"It's all rhetoric by the government. It's just to pacify certain members of the European Union - I do not believe it," he said.
HOW THE LAW VARIES
Britain: Cannabis has been downgraded from Class B to Class C. Possession of a small amount ceased to be an arrestable offence in most situations, but officers still have the power to arrest. Usually, the drug is to be confiscated and users warned. The maximum penalty for possession has been reduced from five years to two years.
Netherlands: Dealing in small quantities of cannabis through coffee shops is technically illegal. Drug use is not an offence. Possessingup to 30g is a minor offence, though users are not prosecuted. Possessingmore than 30g is a criminal offence.