BRUSSELS, Belgium — The tulips are in bloom and the windmills are still turning, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for tourists to enjoy another of the Netherlands’ top attractions.
From May 1, many of the famed Dutch cannabis cafes, known euphemistically as “coffee shops,” have been banned from serving non-residents.
For the moment, the ban applies only in the provinces along the Netherlands' southern border, which are popular with visitors from Belgium, France and Germany, but it’s due to be extended to Amsterdam and the rest of the country from the start of next year.
A smoke in a coffee shop has long been a rite of passage for young travelers in Europe and many are bemoaning the cafes’ demise. Others are looking at Europe’s patchwork of soft-drug laws to seek new hideaways where tourists can take a toke.
“It does create a great opportunity for a tourist city like Brighton and Hove to replace Amsterdam as the liberal tourist’s destination of choice,” blogged Ben Duncan, a city councilor in the English south-coast resort.
“Think of all the millions our shops and hotels would make if all those tourists being turned away from Amsterdam by the Dutch Tories came here to spend their holiday cash instead,” said the Green Party politician.
Actually, Britain has some of Europe’s tougher laws on cannabis, with possession punishable by up to five years in prison, although in practice only persistent offenders are likely to face arrest and prosecution.
Spain and Portugal appear more likely candidates to attract weed-seeking travelers. Both countries have a liberal approach, treating possession as an administrative rather than criminal offense.
One village in Spain sees pot as a way to ease the economic crisis. Rasquera in the northeastern Catalonia region voted in a referendum last month to rent out 17 acres of public land to the Barcelona Association for Personal Cannabis Use, hoping for lucrative harvests that could pay off the village debt and create jobs.
“I would have no problem allowing the council to use my land,” farmer Eusebio Gil was quoted telling the El Mundo newspaper. “Until somebody rules otherwise, this is a legal project, so we are committed to this and angry about the lack of any future for this village.”
Spanish authorities are currently studying the legality of Rasquera’s plan. Despite their relaxed approach, however, neither Spain nor Portugal allows retail outlets that match the Dutch coffee shop. Although personal possession is decriminalized, those caught can have their pot confiscated and face fines.
“Portugal has a rather soft, liberal policy to petty drug deals and private consumption, but it’s been like that for 10 years and has not led to any kind of drug tourism,” explains Joep Oomen, of the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies, which promotes liberal rules.
“In Spain there is also tolerance of consumer clubs who produce cannabis for their own members’ consumption, but they are not open to tourists,” he added in a telephone interview.
Drug policy is largely excluded from European Union rules, meaning each nation is free to set its own laws, a situation some see as an anachronism given the lack of border controls within the EU.
France in particular had long complained about the liberal Dutch approach, saying it leads to youngsters traveling back from the Netherlands with cannabis to sell at home.
In the 1990s there was a serious diplomatic spat between the two countries when France's then-President Jacques Chirac threatened to exclude the Netherlands from the EU’s border-free travel zone, and a French parliamentary report branded the Netherlands a “narco-state.”
Now, however, the Netherland’s tougher position has triggered fears in some neighboring nations that shutting the doors of the coffee shops could force the cannabis trade underground and across the Dutch borders.
“This new Dutch policy will have knock-on effects in our country,” Belgium’s Interior Minister Joelle Milquet said Tuesday. “They could include an increase in cannabis plantations in Belgium, a shift in illegal sales or an increase in the number of touts seeking out potential clients along our highways.”
She announced Belgium’s police were stepping up anti-drug patrols and boosting cooperation with their Dutch counterparts.
Belgian and German authorities have already been struggling with a surge in domestic cannabis production since an earlier Dutch crackdown led to a re-location of plantations that supply the coffee shops. The number of cannabis plantations discovered by the police in Belgium rose from 35 to 666 in the five years up to 2008
“This will have a big impact on the countries on the border, Germany and Belgium,” said Oomen. “Now the coffee shops are inaccessible, there will be a huge increase in the illegal market, drug runners, dealers on the street etc. both in Holland in over the borders.”
Even Dutch pot smokers, who will continue to have access to the coffee shops if they register for a so-called “weed pass,” have indicated they will be going underground for their supply. Almost 60 percent said they would refuse to register at coffee shops and would seek alternative sources, according to a survey by the University of Amsterdam’s Bonger Institute of Criminology.