Dutch cannabis cafes open to members only

MAASTRICHT — About 30 cannabis-vending coffee shops in the south of the Netherlands announced Tuesday they would become private members’ clubs at the start of next year to keep out foreign drug tourists.
“We will transform the coffee shops from open establishments, accessible by all, to closed establishments of which clients need to be members,” Maastricht’s Mayor Gerd Leers told a press conference in the border town.
In the latest move away from the traditionally liberal Dutch approach to such issues as soft drugs and prostitution, coffee shops in the province of Limburg said they would start issuing membership cards.
The application procedure would take several days, in effect preventing short-term tourists from buying marijuana. The move is backed by the national government, and is seen as a pilot project for possible expansion to other areas.
Some four million foreigners travel to Limburg every year to buy cannabis, according to a municipal official.
The measure, to be applied uniformly by all coffee shops in the province which borders Belgium and Germany, would seek to “discourage the majority of drug tourists,” said Leers. “We have been fighting for years against the nuisance brought here by the Belgians, the French and the Germans,” he added. These included damage to city property, heavy road traffic, a rising trade in hard drugs and other criminal activities.
From January 1 next year, the province will limit the sale of cannabis in its coffee shops to three grams per person per day. Each buyer would have to present a membership card that would work on the basis of a fingerprint, iris or some similar identification system. Purchases will only be possible by bank card or credit transfer.
Dutch law allows the consumption and possession of up to five grams of cannabis per individual, but prohibits the cultivation and mass retail of the soft drug. Some 700 so-called coffee shops nationwide have special licenses to sell marijuana but are allowed to keep no more than 500 grams on site.
Home Affairs Minister Guusje ter Horst told Tuesday’s launch that the new project was the first step in a “harder approach to illegality” by Dutch law enforcement. Also, the Dutch Council of State, which advises the government on legislation, had asked the European Court of Justice to weigh the legality of limiting access to Dutch coffee shops to Dutch citizen. An answer is expected in about 18 months.
Several Dutch municipalities have recently announced plans to close all or part of the coffee shops within their borders, partly to discourage crime and drug tourism.
But Leers said closing coffee shops was not a viable alternative, as this risked “chasing clients into illegality”.
Source: Agence France-Presse 05/13/2009

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