It’s a common misconception: everyone in the Netherlands smokes weed. This is partially due to the amount of coffee shops that tourists see in the Netherlands, where it’s easy to buy. But what’s the story behind coffeeshops? And what’s with the name?
I think pot is more visible in Vancouver than in this snazzy shopping town. But I’m obviously missing something since 1.5 million drug tourists come through Maastricht every year to buy weed and drive home.
The ‘coffee shop’
Funny story: two years ago when I first arrived in Maastricht as an exchange student I wanted to get a coffee with a new friend. We ventured into the centre of town to find a café. To my delight there were tons of coffee shops. I’m a coffee lover and this looked very promising. We went inside and instead of the pungent java aroma I was anticipating, the smell of weed hit me. I asked my friend, “What’s with all the pot smoking in here?” and he looked at me strangely. Then I actually ordered a coffee ‘to go’! Obviously my throw-away Starbucks mentality didn’t stay in Canada.
The woman behind the counter looked at me strangely and explained she could only serve coffee inside the shop. I looked at my friend curiously. “Isn’t that weird that a café doesn’t have coffee to go?” He just laughed. “This is a coffeeshop, not a café!” Even though I knew about Dutch tolerance for drugs, I honestly had never heard of this term. Several stoned patrons were staring and snickering at me. I quickly learned the lingo – a coffeeshop is a ‘Dutchism’ for licensed cannabis shops where customers can legally buy small quantities of cannabis products for personal consumption.
It’s all very confusing for me since a Dutch ‘coffeeshop’ sells pot, a ‘koffiehuis’ is like a North American coffee shop selling coffee, a café here is equivalent to a bar at home. There is also an ‘eethuis’ or an ‘eetcafé’ which is in between a café and restaurant. Whew there is a lot to learn before going out for a drink, bite or possibly even a joint.
Maastricht coffeeshops are world-famous. Looking up ‘drug tourism’ in Wikipedia was surprising. Besides Amsterdam, South Asia, and South America, only one other drug tourist destination is mentioned: “visited frequently by drug tourists is Maastricht because of its position close to the borders of Germany and Belgium.”
This phenomenon hasn’t gone unnoticed. It is a hot political issue in Maastricht and Mayor Gerd Leers has tried to offer pragmatic solutions to the complex ‘problem’. Leers has been in international media in the past couple of years. The New York Times, BBC, International Herald Tribune among others have reported on Leers’ cannabis policies. The Mayor is doing two things. First, he is cleaning up the nearly 30 licensed coffee shops in Maastricht – half shut as a result of his tighter surveillance. Second, Leers is trying to bust some marijuana myths and all of the rest of Europe to better understand the realities of cannabis use.
Mayor Leers tightens up rules
A friend of mine has spent many years indulging in hash here in Maastricht. One change he’s witnessed in the last few years is that he’s ID’d when entering coffeeshops. He now needs to prove he’s 18 or older.
In the Netherlands, the buying and selling of cannabis is possible although illegal. Historically national laws about drug policy – no advertising, no hard drug sales on the premises, no sales to minors, no sales transactions exceeding a quantity threshold and no public disturbances in coffeeshops – have not strictly been upheld. This relaxation of enforcement is often referred to as ‘gedoogd’ in Dutch.
Gerd Leers has been challenging this Dutch ‘gedoogd’ tradition. Since he took office in 2002, he has been strictly enforcing cannabis rules, which wasn’t the case before.
Now shops that violate regulations must shut for at least three months for a single infraction, six months for a second offence, and permanently for a third.
As a consequence, shop owners are now making an effort to abide by the rules because they don’t want their shop to be the next to close. Only 16 coffeeshops are currently open for business.
This summer Maastricht’s licensed coffeeshops will begin the drastic measure of fingerprinting customers and scanning their IDs. Through this self regulation, coffeeshop owners want to prove they’re adhering to rules on the minimum patron age of 18 and that they’re not selling more than the permitted five grams per person.
Dangers of drug tourism – myth or reality?
It’s difficult to say what exactly the problem is though. Is it adolescent drug use? Is it foreign users smuggling the drugs to their home country or just generally contributing to crime in the city? Or is it simply that the groups of pot smokers don’t fit with Maastricht’s shopping Mecca image? It’s probably a combination of the above.
Mayor Leers has his own online blog on pertinent issues. Of interest is his section on drugs and a page called “13 misconceptions (and 1 conclusion) about cannabis. It’s informative and controversial cutting against mainstream notions of the soft drug. For example Leers says it is a myth that closing coffeeshops reduces overall cannabis use.
Leers points out that the Netherlands is the only Western nation where cannabis is sold “legally” in coffeeshops and 13% of young people use cannabis here. But in countries that seriously punish cannabis use, that percentage is much higher: 17% in Belgium, Ireland and the USA, 20% in the UK, and 22% in France (source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime).
Leers believes that a major problem is the inconsistency with Dutch soft drug laws. While individuals can legally possess five grams of marijuana or hashish, coffeeshops cannot legally purchase their stock. This is where Dutch law becomes a little strange.
Hundreds of kilos of cannabis are necessary to supply the demand of drug tourists in Maastricht. While shops cannot legally buy or grow this amount, the ‘front doors’ of their coffeeshops are watched, but their ‘back doors’ are not. In an interview with AFP, Leers said “It is like telling a baker that he can sell bread but cannot buy flour.”
This is where crime comes in – the production of marijuana happens within the country. In their basements and gardens Dutch citizens are producing the stock for coffeeshops.
Organised criminal gangs easily moved in on this black market and hard drugs and other criminal activity are part of the business. This is why Leers calls for laws that would legalise marijuana from production to sale, eliminating the underground and potentially dangerous and exploitative home-grown industry.
Leers is also advocating a Maastricht City Council proposal to have designated locations where people can buy marijuana – called “cannabis boulevards”. This could potentially reduce the demands of drug tourism on Dutch border cities where police are overloaded with drug trafficking crimes.
While Leers enjoys broad national support, the idea is not appealing to all. In April 2007, former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt wrote a letter to his Dutch counterpart Jan Peter Balkenende objecting to the cannabis boulevard idea. The new shops would be close to the Belgian border – within walking distance of Belgian towns.
Dutch Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin will try to convince Belgium and also Germany on the decision to move the city’s cannabis bars to the Belgian border.
Maastricht city center has 15 coffeeshops. Leers has reached agreement with eight coffee shops to move to the city outskirts, to three locations near the Belgian and German borders.
Formally, it is a temporary measure. Belgium could at an extreme decide to take the Netherlands to the European Court of Justice. Verhofstadt argues the Netherlands would be violating the Schengen treaty if Leers’ plans go ahead. But a friendly diplomatic solution is more likely.
>A European, not Maastricht problem
In response to this and other allegations Leers has pointed out Belgium’s own inconsistent laws. The problem is not the coffeeshops, he claims. For example in Belgium, people may possess up to three grams of cannabis but they can’t legally buy it there; that’s why they come to Maastricht’s coffeeshops.
According to Leers, this is really a problem for all of Europe to deal with. He argues that closing all the coffeeshops is not the answer since this would just push the industry further underground. Rather he calls for legalisation and regulation of the soft drug.
Leers pushed this agenda at a European Parliament hearing on 21 April 2005, which focused on the EU-Drugs Action Plan 2005-2008. In his speech at the hearing, Leers said that “it is absolutely necessary that EU governments shed their rigidness and accept that cannabis is, just like alcohol, a recreational activity. It is regulation that leads to harm reduction and less crime. We must break the taboo.”
Attitudes towards pot in Maastricht
Besides the obvious desire to cut out organised criminal gangs and the black market, what is the problem with coffeeshops? Why should they move out of the centre of town? Is this all just snobbery? Who is actually complaining?
I’ve lived and visited in Maastricht off and on for the past two years and I don’t visit coffeeshops. In fact I hardly even notice them. I’ve never seen any street disturbances outside the shops. If anything I’ve only seen or heard of street brawls involving aggressive drunk youths.
When I first moved here I was surprised by the Dutch attitude towards marijuana. I’m from British Columbia, Canada where marijuana brings in around €4.9 billion illegally into the province annually. I don’t know anyone at home who hasn’t tried pot once. Not so in Maastricht. The Dutch women I’ve met have never even tried the stuff and they weren’t the least bit interested. So I think Leers probably has a point. When a drug is easily accessible, there is less of a thrill and its street appeal diminishes.
I’ve been ‘going out on the town’ in Maastricht for the past couple of years and I’ve never even noticed the drug tourists. I only knew they existed because my Dutch boyfriend would say “there are the Belgium and German teenagers who drive 200 km just to visit the coffeeshops here.” I’ve been walking around Maastricht scoping out the coffeeshops and at worst barely 18-year-olds look timidly at the entrances and fail miserably to be discreet as they stumble into the shops. But that’s all I’ve ever seen in two years.
I do think image plays a big role here. Since I first came to Maastricht in 2005 I cannot believe how many new clothes shops have opened here. Do we really need three H&M’s in a town this size? There is an obvious attempt by city planners to make Maastricht into even more of a stylish shopping tourist destination. The smell of pot drifting from the seedy coffeeshops and stoned youth don’t quite fit with this glitzy image.
I used to go to one coffeeshop called ‘Heaven 69’ but not for the pot. They have a lovely outdoor patio and serve really good food. A friend said they have the best veggie burgers in town. Whenever I go there, customers are eating, smoking and playing games. I would call the mood extremely mellow, and based on my experience as a non-smoker I don’t see a problem here.
Danya Chaikel is from Vancouver, Canada and recently graduated from law school. She has a background of working with migrants and promoting human rights. Danya recently moved to Maastricht to be with her Dutch partner.
Published with the permission of Crossroads, a web magazine for expatriates in Maastricht, the Netherlands. (www.ejc.nl/crossroads).