Cannabis shop owner to go on trial

2nd November 2009, Comments 0 comments

The owner of the Netherlands' biggest cannabis-vending coffee shop in Terneuzen, near the border with Belgium, goes on trial for drug trafficking as the country hardens its stance on soft drug use.

THE HAGUE - The owner of the Checkpoint coffee shop will stand trial in the district court in Middelburg with 16 others, including a manager and suppliers, in what is widely seen as a test case.

The 58-year-old owner, whose name prosecutors refused to divulge, was charged after being caught storing more than the allowed quantity of cannabis on site.

Investigators said they found 120 kilogrammes (265 pounds) of marijuana on the premises in 2007 and another 110 kilos (242 pounds) last year.

Before it was closed in May 2008, Checkpoint counted between 2,000 and 3,000 clients a day, mainly Belgian and French.

The Netherlands' 700-odd licensed coffee shops are allowed to keep no more than 500 grammes (1.1 pounds) of cannabis on their premises, while clients are limited to five grammes (.18 ounces) per purchase. The limits are often flouted.

"This is the biggest-ever case of its sort," Middelburg prosecution spokeswoman Elke Kool told AFP.

"We are dealing with a real criminal organisation here."

The Netherlands decriminalised the consumption and possession of under five grammes of cannabis in 1976.

Cannabis cultivation and mass retail remains in the hands of criminal organisations in a black-market business worth some two billion euros (three billion dollars) per year.

The Netherlands has recently been taking an increasingly tough stance on recreational drug use, citing what critics see as a nuisance created by millions of drug tourists who cross the border every year.

"We have had a lot less trouble since the closure of Checkpoint, about 80 percent of whose clients were foreigners," Terneuzen city council spokesman Daniel Rouw told AFP.

The town of 55,000 inhabitants now has only one coffee shop, which attracts some 600 clients daily -- "a more reasonable number", he said.

The national Dutch government announced plans in September to limit drug tourism by reserving hundreds of cannabis-vending coffee shops for locals.

A cabinet statement at the time said: "The sale of hashish and cannabis in coffee shops must be limited and aimed solely at the local user".

A draft new drugs policy is to be presented to parliament by the end of the year.

As it is being drafted, many cities and towns have started taking their own curtailment measures.

Amsterdam has said it will halve its number of coffee shops, citing criminality, while other cities are to close those within a certain distance around schools.

In the southern Limburg province, 30 coffee shops announced recently they would become private members' clubs from next year and reduce the daily limit from five to three grammes per person.

Roosendaal and Bergen-op-Zoom, two other southern border councils, last month withdrew the cannabis-selling licences of their eight coffee shops in a bid to rid the cities of some 25,000 drug tourists per week.


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