Dutch ban takes aim at foreigners buying pot

Associated Press Modified: April 27, 2012 at 2:30 pm •  Published: April 27, 2012
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AMSTERDAM (AP) — This country of canals and tulips is also famous for "coffee shops" where joints and cappuccinos share the menu. Now, the Netherlands' famed tolerance for drugs could be going up in smoke.

A judge on Friday upheld a government plan to ban foreign tourists from buying marijuana by introducing a "weed pass" available only to Dutch citizens and permanent residents.

The new regulation reins in one of the country's most cherished symbols of tolerance — its laissez-faire attitude toward soft drugs — and reflects the drift away from a long-held view of the Netherlands as a free-wheeling utopia.

For many tourists visiting Amsterdam the image endures, and smoking a joint in a canal-side coffee shop ranks high on their to-do lists, along with visiting cultural highlights like the Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank House.

Worried that tourism will take a hit, the city's mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, is hoping to hammer out a compromise with the national government, which relies on municipalities and local police to enforce its drug policies.

Relaxing outside The Bulldog, a coffee shop in downtown Amsterdam, Gavin Harrison and Ian Leigh of Northern Ireland said they hoped the city wouldn't change.

"I think it's going to be a shame for Amsterdam, I think it's going to lose a lot of tourists," Harrison said.

Leigh said he had been visiting Amsterdam for a decade and had noticed the erosion of tolerance over the years. "It's taking a step back," he said.

Coffee shop owners have not given up the fight. A week ago they mustered a few hundred patrons for a "smoke-out" in downtown Amsterdam to protest the new restrictions.

A lawyer for the owners, Maurice Veldman, said he would file an appeal against the ruling by The Hague District court, which clears the way for the weed pass to be introduced in southern provinces on Tuesday.

If the government gets its way, the pass will roll out in the rest of the country — including Amsterdam — next year. It will turn coffee shops into private clubs with membership open only to Dutch residents and limited to 2,000 per shop.

The Netherlands has more than 650 coffee shops, 214 of them in Amsterdam. The number has been steadily declining as municipalities imposed tougher regulations, such as shuttering ones close to schools.

But the new membership rules are the most significant rollback in years to the traditional Dutch tolerance of marijuana use.

The government argues that the move is justified to crack down on so-called "drug tourists," effectively couriers who drive over the border from neighboring Belgium and Germany to buy large amounts of marijuana and take it home to resell. They cause traffic and public order problems in towns along the Dutch border.

Such issues do not exist in Amsterdam, where most tourists walk or ride bikes and buy pot for their own consumption.

The weed pass "doesn't solve any problems we have here and it could create new problems," said city spokeswoman Tahira Limon.

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