MAASTRICHT/TILBURG, The Netherlands (Reuters) - Tourists puffed on spliffs in the streets of southern Dutch cities and defiant coffee-shops sold joints to visitors in protest against a ban on selling cannabis to foreigners which took effect on Tuesday.
In Maastricht, a short drive from both the German and the Belgian borders, protesters waved banners decorated with marijuana leaves and slogans such as “Dealers Wanted” and “Stop discrimination for Belgium”.
In the main square, a few hundred demonstrators staged a sit-in and about 50 openly smoked joints alongside a two-meter-(6 ft)-long fake spliff.
The new law rolls back the Netherlands’ traditionally relaxed attitude to narcotics and clamps down on the millions of foreign “drugs tourists” who flock each year to coffee shops, famed for dispensing soft drugs.
From Tuesday, the cafes in three southern provinces close to the German and Belgian borders can only sell cannabis to registered members. Authorities say the move will reduce crime.
“Now we can’t enter any more, outrageous, it’s discrimination,” a Belgian smoker, who gave his name as Cannabas, told Reuters.
Maastricht’s mayor, Onno Hoes, was presented with a petition signed by about 300 coffee shops and other outlets asking for the ban to be scrapped.
The city’s Easy Going coffee shop closed its doors to all customers in protest, saying police would simply have to handle dealing on the street instead.
Marc Josemans, head of Maastricht’s coffee shop association, said in recent weeks dealers from northern France, Belgium and eastern Europe had started plying their trade in the streets.
“Now this is totally new for Maastricht, we never had this problem, so actually we are creating more problems than we are solving,” he said.
The new law, passed by the Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition before it collapsed last month, was introduced in January and will be enforced in the southern provinces before being introduced nationwide next year.
Coffee shops will only be allowed to admit a maximum of 2,000 registered members, who must have a local address.
Politicians said the measure was needed to stamp out crime related to the drug trade and to limit cannabis consumption.
Opponents of the law say it will drive cannabis use underground and that the membership lists raise civil liberties concerns.
In Tilburg, some coffee shops sold ready-rolled joints and sachets of weed to foreigners in open defiance of the new law.
Willem Vugs, proprietor of the ‘t Oermelijn coffee shop in Tilburg, told Reuters it was business as usual.
“We’ve been selling cannabis to anybody who comes, as normal,” said Vugs, one of several coffee shop owners who wants to be brought before court so the ban can be tested.
“We are being forced to discriminate against foreigners.”
He said his shop welcomed up to 800 visitors a day, around a fifth from Belgium, which is less than half an hour away by car.
“They don’t just spend their money here, they buy groceries and fill up their cars, too,” he said, arguing that for Tilburg, the loss of custom could be economically painful.
The Netherlands for years tolerated the sale of up to 5 grams per person per day of marijuana and hashish in the controlled environment of the coffee shops. It also permits home cultivation of up to five marijuana plants per person.
But the prospect of a register has many worried.
“My customers don’t want a membership list. For one thing, smoking cannabis is technically illegal and for another, people worry that police will have access to the list,” Vugs said.
Other coffee shop owners say local customers including doctors, nurses, lawyers and other professionals do not want to be on record as consumers of soft drugs.
Maastricht Mayor Hoes said such concerns were unwarranted and the information would not be used for anything other than checking the coffee shops.
Editing by Sara Webb and Angus MacSwan