June 27, 2008 / 3:36 PM / 9 years ago

Dutch coffee shop owners relaxed over smoking ban

<p>A cup containing marijuana labelled "replacement tobacco, no nicotine" is pictured on a table in a coffeeshop in Amsterdam June 27, 2008. REUTERS/Michael Kooren</p>

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - When a smoking ban comes into force in the Netherlands next Tuesday, it may kill the buzz for people who like to smoke their cannabis with tobacco. But some owners of the famous Dutch coffee shops are staying mellow.

Fittingly, in a land renowned for its relaxed attitude to drug laws, the new rules contain a few loopholes.

People will still be able to smoke pure cannabis joints in around 700 coffee shops, something some tourists -- notably from the United States -- already often do.

Also, restaurants, cafes and coffee shops will be allowed to set up a separate room or glass partition behind which people can smoke. But customers will not be served in these areas to protect staff.

This dispensation makes the Dutch law more relaxed than smoking restrictions in some other European countries where smoking is banned completely in bars, restaurants and other public spaces.

Arjam Roskam, who owns the Green House coffee shop in Amsterdam, is not worried.

His marijuana strains have won 31 Cannabis Cup prizes over the years and he counts Hollywood celebrities, members of Europe’s royal families, lawyers, judges and police officers among his clients.

“The English, Americans and Japanese are our biggest customers. Already for a very, very long time they don’t smoke tobacco because tobacco is the number one killer on this planet,” he said. “We don’t mind the smoking ban.”

Many smokers mix marijuana with tobacco but it can also be smoked on its own in joints, pipes, vaporizers and other devices, or eaten in cakes and cookies.

Under the new law, cutting cannabis with tobacco could land coffee shop owners with a fine of up to 2,400 euros ($3,778).

Soft drugs are officially banned in the Netherlands but under a policy of tolerance, buyers are allowed to have less than 5 grams of cannabis in their possession.

Small quantities are sold in coffee shops, making the usually small and cozy venues big attractions for tourists.

Despite Roskam’s comments, for some of these visitors, a joint is not a joint without tobacco.

<p>An unidentified man smokes a marijuana joint in a coffeeshop in Rotterdam in this June 14, 2005 file photo. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen</p>

“We come (to Amsterdam) just for the coffee shops, three to five times a year,” said Briton Barry Johnson, who was lounging in the Green House coffee shop with a friend.

“I don’t smoke pure marijuana as it is too strong for me, it makes me sleepy,” he said. “I definitely won’t come back if mixed joints are not allowed.”

NO SPACE

Michael Veling, spokesman for the Cannabis Retail Association which represents some 110 coffee shops mainly in Amsterdam and surrounding areas, did not think the ban would greatly affect his business as most of his customers bought cannabis to take home.

He said only about two dozen of his members had created separate spaces for tobacco smokers, adding that he would not: “I don’t see the benefits of it.”

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.

According to the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction, the number of people using cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy has remained fairly stable in recent years, with users making up about 3-5 percent of a population of 16 million.

The Dutch drug-related death rate is low compared with other EU countries, it said in its 2007 report.

The Dutch health ministry said it did not think the smoking ban would lead to more drug-related problems by driving more people to smoke cannabis-only joints.

“People can still smoke tobacco mixed with cannabis in coffee shops but only in a closed area where employees cannot serve them,” said ministry spokeswoman Saskia Hommes.

“Maybe the smokers have to travel a bit more to find a coffee shop with a closed area,” she said.

The watchdog Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority says it has a squad of about 200 inspectors ready to enforce the ban.

“They are trained for the job,” says spokesman Bob Kiel, adding inspectors will be able to tell the difference between a mixed or pure joint from its smell and appearance.

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