On a recent summer night, Marc Josemans’s Easy Going Coffee Shop was packed. The lines to buy marijuana and hashish stretched to the reception area where customers waited behind glass barriers.
Most were young. Few were Dutch.
Thousands of “drug tourists” sweep into this small, picturesque city in the southeastern part of the Netherlands every day — as many as two million a year, city officials say. Their sole purpose is to visit the city’s 13 “coffee shops,” where they can buy varieties of marijuana with names like Big Bud, Amnesia and Gold Palm without fear of prosecution.
It is an attraction Maastricht and other Dutch border cities would now gladly do without. Struggling to reduce traffic jams and a high crime rate, the city is pushing to make its legalized use of recreational drugs a Dutch-only policy, banning sales to foreigners who cross the border to indulge. But whether the European Union’s free trade laws will allow that is another matter.
The case, now wending its way through the courts, is being closely watched by legal scholars as a test of whether the European Court of Justice will carve out an exception to trade rules — allowing one country’s security concerns to override the European Union’s guarantee of a unified and unfettered market for goods and services.
Rising crime rate
City officials say they have watched with horror as a drug tolerance policy intended to keep Dutch youth safe — and established long before Europe’s borders became so porous — has morphed into something else entirely. Municipalities like Maastricht, in easy driving distance from Belgium, France and Germany, have become regional drug supply hubs.
Maastricht now has a crime rate three times that of similar-size Dutch cities farther from the border. “They come with their cars and they make a lot of noise and so on,” said Gerd Leers, who was mayor of Maastricht for eight years. “But the worst part is that this group, this enormous group, is such an attractive target for criminals who want to sell their own stuff, hard stuff, and they are here too now.”
In recent years, crime in Maastricht, a city of cobblestone lanes and medieval structures, has included a shootout on the highway, involving a Bulgarian assassin hired to kill a rival drug producer.
Mr. Leers used to call the possibility of banning sales to foreigners a long shot. But last month, Maastricht won an early round. The advocate general for the European Court of Justice, Yves Bot, issued a finding that “narcotics, including cannabis, are not goods like others and their sale does not benefit from the freedoms of movement guaranteed by European law.”
Mr. Leers called the ruling “very encouraging.” Coffee shop owners saw it differently.
“There is no way this will hold up,” said John Deckers, a spokesman for the Maastricht coffee shop owners’ association. “It is discrimination against other European Union citizens.”
If Maastricht gets its way, many other Dutch municipalities will doubtless follow. Last year, two small Dutch towns, Rosendal and Bergen op Zoom, decided to close all their coffee shops after surveys showed that most of their customers were foreigners.
'Our policy has been abused, misused, totally perverted'
The situation has not made for good neighborly feelings. Many residents of border towns criticize Belgium, France and Germany for tolerating recreational drug use but banning the sale of drugs. “They don’t punish small buyers,” said Cyrille Fijnaut, a professor at the University of Tilburg law school. “But they also don’t have their own coffee shops, so that leaves us as the suppliers. Our policy has been abused, misused, totally perverted.”
As business has boomed, many of the Dutch coffee shops — dingy, hippie establishments in the ’80s and ’90s with a few plastic tubs of marijuana on the shelves — have become slick shops serving freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee in fine china.
The Easy Going Coffee Shop has a computer console at the door where identification documents proving that customers are 18 or older are scanned and recorded. Tiny pictures on driver’s licenses are blown up to life-size on a screen, so guards can get a good look at them. Behind the teller windows, workers still cut the hashish with a big kitchen knife, but all sales are recorded on computerized cash registers.
Mr. Bot’s ruling last month is only an early step in determining whether Maastricht can enforce a Dutch-only policy. A final ruling by the full court is expected by the end of the year.
But Mr. Bot’s finding, a veritable tirade on the evils of drugs, surprised many legal scholars, who expected the European Union’s open market rules to trump any public order arguments, as they have in other cases. Sweden, for instance, which has a long history of struggling with alcohol abuse, was obliged to take down most of its anti-alcohol laws restricting store hours and sales, as they were seen as impinging on free trade.
Polls show that a majority of the Dutch still believe that the coffee shops should exist. But the Netherlands once had 1,500 of them; now, there are about 700. And every year, the numbers decline, according to Nicole Maalste, a professor at the University of Tilburg who has written a book on the subject. “Slowly, slowly they are being closed down by inventing new rules, and new rules,” Ms. Maalste said.
'Back door' problem
Much of the criminality associated with the coffee shops, experts say, revolves around what people here call the “back door” problem. The government regulates what goes on in coffee shops. But it has never legalized or regulated how the stores get the drugs they sell — an issue that states in the United States that have legalized medical marijuana are just beginning to grapple with.
In recent years, the tremendous volume of sales created by foreigners has prompted an industry of cultivating cannabis and other drugs within the Netherlands — some estimate that it is now a $2 billion a year business — much of it tangled in organized crime and money laundering operations, experts say.
Advocates for legalized sales and coffee shop owners argue that trying to restrict foreigners will only encourage them to buy illegally in the streets. They also say that coffee shops have other selling points: they pay 450 million euros a year in taxes and provide thousands of jobs.
Mr. Deckers, the shop association spokesman, said coffee shop owners were so skeptical that the European Union would allow restrictions on sales based on nationality that they encouraged the city to get a ruling on the subject. They doubt Mr. Bot’s arguments will stand. “We know he is wrong,” Mr. Deckers said.
This article, "A Dutch City Seeks to End Drug Tourism," first appeared in The New York Times.