Belgians still buying in Maastricht
“There you are, three grams. Have a nice day!” It’s noon on Friday in Maastricht.
The morning market draws to a close, and the sun begins to tempt people out to relax on sidewalk terraces or saunter around the downtown area. Since last January, the Dutch town has had to adopt a new look, now that tourists no longer come to breathe in the aromas of its infamous cone cigarettes, taste the cakes that tend to trigger laughter, or fill their glove compartments with stuffed packages. Instead, now people come solely for the beauty of Maastricht's architecture and its appealing shopping districts. However, while local authorities have made clear their desire to put an end to drug tourism, Le Soir managed, in under two hours, to unearth a dealer and purchase some cannabis. In coming here we were keen to find out where border dwellers now get their supply and if a parallel market had formed. By finding and speaking to this dealer, we obtained the answers we were looking for.
Since January 2012, each municipality can prohibit the sale of soft drugs to customers who do not reside in the Netherlands, which is exactly what Maastricht has done. But in May, coffee shop operators, using a decision from the administrative court which stipulated that the municipality was wrong to order the closure of one of these outlets, took advantage of the Ascension weekend to organize an "open house" day. The mayor of Maastricht was not amused by the rebellious initiative, again ordering that the coffee shop in question be shut. In June, six coffee shop owners and employees were even found guilty in the courts. This therefore signaled the end of Belgians "heading up to Maas" to procure their recreational drugs. Or at least it has until an outcome is reached in the legal battle between the Association of Official Coffee Shops Maastricht (VOCM) and the town's mayor, Onno Hoes.
It was always at the "Mississippi" and the "Smoky", two coffee shops based aboard moored barges, that tourists traditionally went to stock up, so we give it a try. "Ah, I'm afraid not. That's not going to be possible. We can't let Belgians in anymore," states the bouncer. "But if you want, all you have to do is head to Sittard, about 20 kilometers from here. They'll be able to sell to you there," bemoans the shop owner, who has seen 65 % of his clientele go up in smoke. "In Sittard, yes. Otherwise you can drive around a little in Maastricht," advises another operator. "You'll find that, with your registration plate, you'll be noticed pretty quickly and offered something at the stop lights."
In fact, a parallel market has always existed in Maastricht. From January 2012 onward, though, there was an intensification in street deals boosted by the wave of Belgians who continue to come here despite the ban. This drug traffic takes place right under the nose of the shop owners. "They wait there in the street. As soon as they hear passers-by speaking French, they go ‘psst, over here'," says a local water pipe and rolling paper vendor. "The problem is that you really don't know what you're buying. A few days ago, three Germans came into my shop absolutely bummed out because instead of the cannabis they thought they'd bought from a dealer, they'd ended up with oregano."
One hour and several sweeps of the town later, we still haven't been offered anything. We decide to openly ask a downtown trader. "You're looking for a dealer?" With a relaxed air, the young man joins us from behind the counter, surveys the street, points to the right and says, "There...that guy, 50-odd meters away. No doubt about it."
The man, who is barely in his 20s, is keen to know why we want to speak to him, and instantly cuts to the chase: "I've got some, but only five grams' worth." In the end, we strike a deal for three grams. The price is €25, plus a €5 commission. "But not here. We're too close to the barges. They don't like me hanging about their turf. Let's walk for a bit." During the few hundred meters that separate us from his chosen destination, the dealer informs us that since border dwellers started getting knocked back from coffee shops, his little business has been booming.
"I do business with lots of Belgians at the moment. Of course, there are fewer of them than before, but the difference isn't all that great. I know that what I do annoys the coffee shops, because they're suffering large losses, but don't worry; there's no risk for you." He, on the other hand, risks being followed by a plain-clothes policeman. "Some even disguise themselves as dealers," reveals our young supplier. "You need to wait here," he states, stopping suddenly on the corner of two peaceful-looking streets. Balancing on the edge of the curb, he leans forward and glances around furtively. "I'm just checking for cameras. If I'm seen walking by with different people every time, that might appear strange."
He moves away and enters a building. Three minutes later, he reappears with a small transparent sack in his hand. Deal done, he promptly crosses the road and heads off again in search of other potential Belgian customers.