Dutch cannabis cafes in dock for selling drugs to tourists

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Dutch prosecutors on Wednesday sought up to one-month suspended jail terms for owners and staff of cannabis cafes in southern city Maastricht for selling pot to foreigners in defiance of a controversial law.

"The public prosecution has asked for (sentences of) community service of 150 hours, fines of up to 5,000 euros ($6,600) and one month suspended prison sentences against sellers at three coffee shops in Maastricht," the public prosecutor's office said in a statement.

The seven owners and staff went on trial Wednesday for selling cannabis to customers, mainly from Germany and Belgium, who constitute two-thirds of coffee shops' clientele, thereby breaking the law which allows for sales to locals only.

Coffee shops in Maastricht, a Roman city of 120,000 conveniently wedged between the borders of Belgium and Germany, now hope the case will set a clear legal precedent.

"We've tried for a long time to be before the court," the unnamed owner of the Smoky coffee shop was quoted as saying by national news agency ANP.

"We must do this, we consider Article 1 of the constitution, against discrimination, more important than instructions from a minister that are not obeyed by the rest of the country," he said.

At the root of the chaos is a controversial law introduced in May 2012 requiring coffee shops to cater only for Dutch residents in the hope of addressing the downsides of drug tourism -- traffic jams, street dealing and rowdy late-night partying.

A new, more left-wing government said in November that individual city authorities could decide whether to apply the law affecting some 650 establishments nationwide, according to their economic or social priorities.

Most Dutch cities, including those in Amsterdam, said they did not want to apply the law, while Maastricht and other southern cities said they would do so.

Confrontation with the coffee shops followed on the streets, in the courts and in the media.

Maastricht's hangouts to get high were emboldened following a court ruling on April 25 that city authorities should not have ordered the closure of one of its best-known establishments, the Easy Going coffee shop.

The Easy Going was ordered shut last year after it was caught selling to tourists.

Members of the Maastricht Coffee Shop Association (VOCM) comprising 13 of the city's 14 coffee shops resumed selling to tourists in May.

But police raids, seizures, closure orders and prosecutions followed, and after the latest police bust at four coffee shops last weekend, all 13 VOCM members have now shut up shop.

The prosecutor said on Wednesday that the new law had brought peace to the city.

"The number of problems linked to drugs has fallen drastically since the cannabis card was introduced, according to several reports," the prosecutor said.

Although cannabis is technically illegal in The Netherlands, the country in 1976 decriminalised possession of less than five grammes (around a sixth of an ounce) of the drug.

The court is to hand down its verdict on June 26.

© 2013 AFP

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