Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The country's reputation as a haven of drug tolerance took a knock yesterday.
Holland’s reputation as a haven of drug tolerance took a knock yesterday. In the 120,000-strong city of Maastricht, a court handed down fines of €2,500 apiece and community service orders to three coffee shop owners who sold cannabis to foreigners. The offense is a fairly new one in the Netherlands – it was introduced last spring, when Dutch authorities began limiting cannabis sales to possessors of a "weed pass" proving they were permanent Dutch residents. Come November, following an election, the law was softened, as the new Liberal-led government decided to let local city authorities decide whether or not to implement it. The Netherlands' biggest cities scrapped the law, but some southern Dutch cities, including Maastricht, have decided to keep it in place and go after anyone who challenges it.
The move may seem at odds with Holland’s image as an anything-goes kind of place, but the truth is that this reputation is out of synch with reality. Certainly Holland has a broad (though contested) consensus that the law should stand back from meddling in personal habits if possible, but its cannabis consumption is actually middling by European standards. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction’s report last year, 3.3 percent of the Dutch population use cannabis monthly, fewer than in the U.K. (3.9 percent) and France (4.8 percent), far fewer than in Italy (6.9 percent), and Spain (7.6 percent) and way behind Europe’s ultimate stoners, the Czechs, who come in at 8.6 percent.
What’s more, a substantial chunk of Dutch cannabis sales are made to weed tourists, who come to the country to get baked and often bring noise, mess and a fine film of sleaze with them. In Amsterdam, they also leave a confetti stream of restaurant, hotel and bar bills, but in the South it’s a different story. Maastricht lies in a narrow southward-jutting finger of land that’s surrounded by Germany and Belgium, which is actually within walking distance. Millions of Germans and Belgians lie within an hour’s drive and visitors often roll in and out of town to buy weed without so much as ordering a coffee. It is no wonder locals here are less keen on the trade, even though the number of regional visitors has allegedly dropped from 1.2 million to 400,000.
As a measure to stamp out sleaze, however, the weed pass law has so far failed Maastricht. Coffee shops' withdrawal from the visitor market created a gap filled by illegal street peddlers, who became more aggressive and obtrusive in their tactics. Some locals are turning to street dealers as well, fearful that registering for a weed pass might somehow affect their future job prospects. It was frustration with this situation that led Maastricht’s coffee shop owners to test the law by selling to visitors once more this May (though city spokespeople have suggested that the illegal traders are in fact themselves linked to the coffee shops). Following in the wake of police raids, yesterday’s verdict should put a definitive stop to moves to pick holes in the weed pass law.
What the new law doesn’t mean, however, is that the Netherlands is necessarily becoming more conservative. Instead, it shows how open borders test the limitations of national laws. Just as recent moves to curb Amsterdam prostitution were in part a response to the country’s failure to stop international human trafficking, so the local tightening of Dutch drug laws is reaction to a situation where tolerance within the country’s small territory sucks in soft drug trade from the whole region. Complications like the ones Maastricht is facing are perhaps inevitable given the way the European Union has opened borders without regularizing laws between member states. Indeed, it’s somewhat ironic that it was in Maastricht itself that the treaty creating the European Union itself was signed in 1992.
Top image: A man protesting against a ban on selling cannabis to foreigners pretends to smoke a mock joint in front of the central train station in Maastricht. (Michael Kooren/Reuters)