Dutch court fines coffee shop owner 10 million euros
The government mooted plans last year to transform coffee shops near the Belgian border into private clubs, to address what critics describe as the nuisance created by millions of drug tourists a year.
The 13-million-dollar penalty would have been larger, the district court of southwestern Middelburg said in a statement, had it not been for the authorities' apparently contradictory approach to soft drug vending and use.
While finding that coffee shop Checkpoint was a criminal organisation that had transgressed the Opium Act, the court said "the role of the authorities weighed heavily in the determination of the sentence".
This included the "facilitating role of the municipality, of which the prosecution service had been aware, and years of non-enforcement of the law", according to the judgment.
The prosecution had sought a 28-million-euro fine for Checkpoint owner Meddy Willemsen, but the court said the authorities' role in the establishment's longstanding success justified a lighter punishment.
Willemsen, 58, was tried with 15 others, including former employees and suppliers of his coffee shop in Terneuzen near the Belgian border, for drug trafficking and involvement in a criminal organisation.
He also received a nine-week effective prison sentence, which he had already served while awaiting trial.
Sentences for the other 15 ranged from mere warnings for those who "rolled the joints" and delivered the cannabis, to six-week jail terms, already served, for the manager and three vendors, Willemsen's lawyer Andre Beckers told AFP.
Police seized over 200 kilogrammes (440 pounds) of cannabis on Checkpoint's premises in 2007 and 2008.
The Checkpoint trial, described by prosecutors as the biggest of its kind, was widely viewed as a test case in a country that has been toughening its stance on soft drug use.
The capital, Amsterdam, has said it will halve its number of coffee shops, citing criminality, while other cities are closing shops within a certain distance from schools.
Though it remains technically illegal, the Netherlands decriminalised the consumption and possession of under five grammes (0.18 ounces) of cannabis in 1976 under a"tolerance" policy.
Cannabis cultivation and mass retail remain illegal and are in the hands of criminal organisations in a black-market business worth some two billion euros per year.
About 700 licenced coffee shops countrywide are permitted to stock no more than 500 grammes of the soft drug at any given time, but this limit is often flouted.
Before shutting its doors in May 2008, Checkpoint counted up to 3,000 customers a day, mainly French and Belgian.
The judges said police had known for years that Checkpoint had thousands of daily visitors a day, and the proof of its growth was evident in regular tax filings.
"It surprises the court that in spite of the information the authorities had about Checkpoint, they never acted", until an "unexpected" shift led to the raids.
"The court has searched the dossier in vain for a reason for the change in the authorities' thinking," said the judgment.