Two southern Dutch town mayors have taken the dramatic step of shutting down all local businesses currently legally selling cannabis. It's the first time a blanket stop has been introduced in a Dutch town. The two towns, Bergen op Zoom and Roosendaal, claim they are suffering from the nuisance caused by foreign tourists in search of soft drugs banned in their own countries. In total eight coffeeshops, the name used for the outlets allowed to sell cannabis, will close their doors for good in the municipalities.
Neither of the two mayors are opposed to the sale or use of cannabis in principle. As far as they are concerned, it is the public nuisance that goes hand in hand with coffeeshops that they are trying to tackle. "There are 25,000 drug tourists per week who visit these coffeeshops," says Mayor Han Polman of Bergen op Zoom. "That leads to a lot of nuisance, and there are links to illegality, there's criminal activity going on. People in our cities are asking us to make the streets safe so we have no choice but to close the coffeeshops."
Peeing in public
For this reason, the closing of coffeeshops deserves the support of the Dutch national government, according to Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin, who says the measure "fits into our policy that municipalities themselves are best able to determine what is needed to combat public nuisance." Cities in the south of the Netherlands have been grappling with mass drug tourism for years now. Annually, about 1.3 million soft drug users and couriers cross over the Dutch border from Germany, France and Belgium to buy marijuana or hashish in the coffeeshops. The drug tourists cause problems, say the mayors of Bergen op Zoom and Roosendaal, by driving dangerously, parking illegally and peeing in the streets.
To combat the same situation, Mayor Gerd Leers of Maastricht wants to move all coffeeshops in his city to the border crossings with Germany, Belgium and France. He disagrees with mayors who unilaterally close down coffeeshops without consulting neighbouring municipalities:
"We're simply moving the problem. We're pushing it from Roosendaal to Breda, and then from Breda to Rotterdam. And what's much worse, is that we're pushing the problem into the illegal sphere. The drug runners are celebrating today because they realize they've just won lots of new customers. The demand for cannabis won't go away, it'll just find a new channel of supply."
Leers has asked Justice Minister Hirsch Ballin to call a meeting with the mayors of all border municipalities. He believes the towns on the Dutch border are the victim of the difference in drug policies between European countries. "It's key that we now make a clear decision here in the Netherlands. We have to ask ourselves, are we going to hold on to our own Dutch system and maintain a different drug policy from our neighbours, or should we say no, because of the problems this causes we can't do that anymore." It's a fundamental question, with real consequences for the tolerant Dutch drug policy which has been in place since the 1970s.
Listen to Newsline's interview with Marc Jacobsen, president of the Union of Coffeeshop retailers
Listen to Han Polman explaining his decision