MAASTRICHT, Netherlands (Reuters) - Sitting among the mellow smokers in a coffeeshop in Maastricht it is easy to forget that a plan to relocate half of the cannabis-selling outlets to the city limits has aroused fury.
The southern Dutch city has been trying for five years to push seven shops to three new “coffee corners” at its northern, western and southern borders.
The marijuana equivalent of out-of-town shopping malls would serve the 1.5 to 2 million people who pour into the city each year in search of a powerful puff.
Neighboring Belgian districts and the Dutch community of Eijsden, enraged by the prospect of coffeeshops on their doorsteps, forced Maastricht to back down after winning a legal challenge last month.
The Dutch city has now put forward a watered-down proposal to place two coffeeshops in a single “coffee corner” at its southern edge for a trial period of three years. Its neighbors are still not happy.
“We see reckless driving, car theft... We already have the highest level of crime of any countryside district in Belgium and 95 percent of it is due to drugs,” said Huub Broers, mayor of the Belgian district of Voeren, just south of Maastricht.
About 80 percent of the city’s coffeeshop customers are foreign -- of which 60 percent come from Belgium and the rest from France and Germany.
Most buyers come at the weekends but even on a weekday morning, there are Belgian cars clustered around coffeeshops. “Slow Motion,” near the station, is anything but, with a stream of customers in and out within minutes.
Both proponents and critics of the plan generally agree that the coffeeshops and the vast majority of their customers who come for a joint or a small bag of hash are not the problem, although residents do complain about congestion and parking.
The trouble comes from the criminals they attract, notably about 500 “drug runners” on the streets peddling substances such as cocaine, ecstasy or heroin.
Western Europe is the world’s largest market for cannabis resin and Europe is the second-largest global market for cocaine, the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board said in March.
John Walters, director of U.S. national drug control policy, said earlier this month the euro’s gains against the dollar may be behind an enormous increase in the availability of cocaine in Europe: selling in euros may be more profitable than in dollars.
“Maastricht is plagued by drug gangs,” said Brice de Ruyver, a professor of criminology and drugs expert at Ghent University.
“The coffeeshops themselves need huge quantities of illicit supplies. Then you have trouble in the city because of dealers. The reasoning is that whoever is interested in cannabis in a coffeeshop may also want something harder as well.”
Residents attest to the problems.
“You see the dealers jump out in the middle of the street flagging down French or German cars. They get in and can be aggressive,” said the owner of Nautica Jansen, a water sport shop beside two floating coffeeshops on the river front.
While Voeren’s mayor fears Maastricht’s plan would simply move the criminals towards his district, Maastricht argues it is difficult to stamp out drug crime in the tight central streets.
At more isolated sites outside the city, the Dutch say, policing would be easier and dealers less able to reach people driving into gated coffeeshop enclosures. Marc Josemans, chairman of the Maastricht coffeeshop association, believes illegal dealers would find demand reduced.
That would in turn cut supply: “It’s a normal market mechanism,” he said. “We cannot prove it, because no one has given us the chance.”
A survey by Joseman’s association found that a third of customers would prefer out-of-town sites: not surprising, given that so many are foreign.
The Dutch have cracked down on coffeeshops: there are now around 700, compared with around 1,200 in 1997. In Maastricht, all customers must prove they are at least 18 years old and there are plans to bring in finger scanners to ensure no one buys more than 5 grams per day.
“It’s easier for a terrorist to enter Europe than for a dope smoker to get inside a coffeeshop,” said Josemans.
“Tolerance in Europe has declined. You see that towards foreigners, religions. And that’s a key reason why the number of coffeeshops has fallen.”
But in Belgium, the rules have softened. Belgians are no longer prosecuted for possessing up to 3 grams (0.1 ounces) of cannabis and can grow a single plant, but would still face arrest for selling resin, plants or seeds in their country.
De Ruyver says the coffeeshops cannot simply be labeled a Dutch problem.
“If 60 percent of those visiting the shops on the border are Belgian, we must take our responsibility too,” he said.
Editing by Sara Ledwith