‘Coffeeshops’ lose ground as drug-related nuisance complaints grow louder

The number of coffeeshops in the Netherlands, where smoking marijuana is permitted, is sharply declining as nuisance complaints related to drug tourism continue to mount.

A key issue coffeeshops face is drug tourism, a practice the Dutch people have become familiar with. Travellers from across the world arrive in Dutch cities, visit coffeeshops and buy soft drugs. As their numbers grow, so do complaints of vandalism and other forms of nuisance – and calls from Dutch residents to restrict foreigners from coffeeshops. As of now, the number of coffeeshops in the Netherlands has more than halved since 2007.

Measures to divide local and foreign users of soft drugs first came to light in the Dutch city of Maastricht in 2011. Because of its close proximity to the Belgian border, the local municipality introduced a ‘weed-pass’ system barring non-Dutch residents from coffeeshops.

Mayor Penn-te Strake told the NL Times in October 2015 that since the ban, problems associated with drug tourism have been “dramatically reduced.”

But critics say the ‘weed-pass’ has led to the growth of organised crime in Maastricht, where it is estimated that up to 90% of licensed trade has been lost to illegal drug dealers.

In the Northern city of Groningen, local coffeeshops count few short-term visitors among their clientele, but they do serve large numbers of international students studying at the city’s largest educational institution, the University of Groningen.

Conall McManus, a first year Irish student, told The Scoop that lax marijuana laws even influenced his decision to study in the Netherlands. And McManus is certainly not alone. On any given evening, the city’s coffeeshops buzz with Italian, French and English conversations from customers who relax there.

And like other cities that experience more common forms of drug tourism, complaints from the neighbourhoods are becoming the new norm.

Maarten Dewaele, a Belgian student, told The Scoop that drug tourism can attract groups of unwanted visitors at night, “who leave garbage around and create a lot of noise.”

This can anger local residents, and is an argument often used by those who oppose drug tourism. After all, Maarten himself has grown frustrated with many international students who, after trips to their favourite weed-friendly establishment, decide to take the party to the streets outside his flat.

“They can get pretty loud, and it’s pretty annoying when it happens at 3am in the morning” he added.

For Maria, the owner of the popular Cafe Dees in Groningen who declined to give her surname, clashes with the local government have typified her last 35 years in the city. To this day, she still feels “vulnerable” to restrictions the local government could enforce at any moment.

“It’s ridiculous” she states when questioned about the ‘weed-pass’ implemented in Maastricht, arguing that mixing locals and foreigners in her shop has never caused serious issues.

With the co-operation of other local coffeeshop owners in Groningen, Maria recently proved to the local municipality that there was no tangible proof that foreign customers were troublemakers.

She ensures security cameras and bouncers are used to counter the weekly police complaints about noise and trouble in the surrounding area.

Describing her encounters with addicts over the past three decades, Maria was disappointed that she could see both the physical and mental deterioration of long-time customers, actually being forced to stop her interview with The Scoop at one stage to remove a known ‘junkie’.

One customer at Cafe Dees, who preferred to remain anonymous, was certain that the government could never ban coffeeshops completely. He argued that most Dutch people “know how to properly deal with the drug,” repeating negative stereotypes of tourists and drugs.

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The alleyway leading to Café Dees in the heart of Groningen. Photo: The Scoop

Much like coffeeshops, Dutch laws regarding marijuana are hazy. Although marijuana is technically still illegal, the police ignore possession of five grams of less and coffeeshops are regulated through trade permits.

The incumbent People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy published on their website that they will continue to pursue policies that aim to “make Dutch coffeeshops less attractive to drug users from abroad.”

However, in February 2017, Dutch MPs voted in favour of regulated, domestic cannabis cultivation by a slim margin of five votes. It has yet to pass in the Senate.

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