Prosperity or Criminality? The Curse of the Coffeeshop
I was really fortunate to spend one year in the beautiful city of Maastricht, located in the southern Dutch province of Limburg. Elegant, miniature houses straddle both sides of the river Maas, separated by the 13th Century St. Servatius Bridge. Imposing cathedrals dominate the skyline, rising from majestic medieval squares, interconnected by narrow cobble-stone streets. Boasting Roman, French and German influence, this melting pot of culture feels really special, almost like a mature wine. It’s easy to get lost in thought while you stroll through those narrow winding streets or as you sip a cappuccino in the Market Square. Just then, the peace is shattered by a group of young tourists: ‘Hey man, where can we get some weed?’
Maastricht feels different to the rest of the Netherlands because of its location – a small, round piece of land jutting into Belgium and Germany. The borders of France and Luxembourg are nearby, giving Maastricht its unique international feeling. This also makes the city a prime centre for drug tourism, with up to 2.2 million people travelling there every year in order to buy cannabis.
Things have changed much since my time in the city, being pestered by young tourists, desperate to sample the Netherland’s most famous example of tolerance. The first signs of discontent were coming from city officials back in 2008, when I lived there, who were trying to implement a policy of decentralisation, moving the drug selling coffeeshops into the suburbs. At the time, this didn’t seem to be working. However, today, the liberal agenda is changing and the coffeeshops are coming under severe pressure from the Dutch government.
With an estimated 6,000 drug tourists visiting Maastricht everyday, those narrow cobble-stone streets were constantly choked with traffic. Of course, in an old city like Maastricht, the smell of exhaust fumes mixed with cannabis smoke doesn’t really bind with the visual surroundings. I had the same feeling in Amsterdam, strolling by the canals, dodging bicycles and taking in the atmosphere. Everywhere I went, the smell was the same. Cannabis. Everywhere I went, the people were the same. Stoned American tourists. At least the traffic situation was better than Maastricht – most traffic problems exist along the border. Nevertheless, I wondered what both Maastricht and Amsterdam would feel like if one day, the situation changed.
Maastricht first attempted to ban coffeeshop sales to all tourists in 2010. This was changed, whereby tourists from Germany and Belgium, Maastricht’s immediate neighbours, were accommodated. This was met with frustration by other tourists, unable to understand why a distinction was being made between Germany and Luxembourg. Both were members of the European Union. Why was such a discriminatory attitude being tolerated in Maastricht of all places, birthplace of the European Union?
The intolerance didn’t last long, with a new Dutch law outlined in 2011 banning sales to all tourists. This measure, known as the ‘Weed Pass’ will in effect, turn all coffeeshops into private clubs for Dutch citizens over 18 and numbers will be limited. It was initially introduced in the southern part of the Netherlands on May 1st, 2012 and is expected to be extended in 2013. Officials in Maastricht stated that the city was ready to support the new law but at least one coffeeshop continued selling to foreigners, before being given a police warning.
Belgian customers standing outside the coffeeshops in Maastricht proclaimed that they would obtain cannabis illegally if they were no longer allowed to smoke legally in the Netherlands. This is one of the major problems that could result from the ban – driving the Dutch drug trade underground. Tourists could buy soft drugs in the coffeeshops, without fear of interaction with drug dealers selling hard drugs. Now the line between soft and hard drugs will become blurred. The introduction of the cannabis card means tourists will have to resort to the illegal criminal circles within their own borders with Belgian and German police fearing a huge increase in criminality.
What about the economic effect on Maastricht and the Netherlands in general? The Association of Official Coffee Shops of Maastricht said that tourists attracted to the city by the coffeeshops spend on average, €120 million per year throughout the city. Out of 650 coffeeshops in the Netherlands, 214 of them are in Amsterdam. According to the Guardian, 5 million tourists visit annually and at least 23% claim to visit the city’s coffeeshops. In the Dutch capital, the subject is highly controversial, and Labor Party Mayor Eberhard Edzard van der Laan has campaigned against the new measures, stating that the coffeeshops are well regulated and draw tourists. The opposing Christian Democrat Party want to see an end to drug tourism and believe the city’s coffeeshops are strongly linked to underground criminal activity. They believe the gains in law and order will outweigh the economic impact of eliminating drug tourism.
I’m keen to visit the Netherlands again soon and see the effects for myself. I hope to visit Maastricht – it was a fantastic experience living there and it still feels like my second home. I was never really a coffeeshop fan as you might have gathered from the first paragraph. I was always happier enjoying the sunshine in the city’s Market Square with a beer rather than a dark smoky coffeeshop with a joint. Will the young people disappear now that the cannabis card has been introduced?
As old as Maastricht is, it’s a young city at heart with a thriving university population and a bright future. The city has a lot going for it and should manage to recoup the lost revenue in other ways. What about those drug tourists though? Will they really be driven underground to partake in criminality? I still have quite a few friends in the Netherlands who I often visit – couldn’t they just bring a few joints back from the coffeeshop after their morning smoke? Probably…then, after a few hours I might have these song lyrics stuck in my head:
“The more things change the more they stay the same
Ah, is it just me or does anybody see
The new improved tomorrow isn’t what it used to be
Yesterday keeps comin’ ’round, it’s just reality
It’s the same damn song with a different melody”
imagenote: Bert Kaufmann/wikimedia/cc