Nov 22, 2008

World - Amsterdam moves to close a fifth of 'coffee shops'

Toby Sterling

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – Amsterdam will close almost a fifth of its marijuana cafes to comply with a national ban on having them near schools, the mayor said Friday.

Another city, Eindhoven, said it would start issuing permits to marijuana growers in order to better regulate the trade — if the national government approves.

The plans were announced as 33 major Dutch cities held a "weed summit" to discuss the nation's long-standing policy of tolerating marijuana use while routinely arresting growers.

Marijuana is technically illegal in the Netherlands, but can be sold in small amounts in designated cafes — euphemistically known as "coffee shops" — without fear of prosecution. More than a quarter of the country's cafes are in Amsterdam, where they are a major tourist attraction.

But Mayor Job Cohen said the city would close about 20 percent of its cafes.

Those included some landmarks, such as The Bulldog — a high-traffic shop operating since 1985 in a former police station on one of the city's main squares.

Letters have been sent to 43 shops located within 250 meters (yards) of a high school informing them they will have to close by the end of 2011 if they cannot successfully appeal the decision, Amsterdam spokeswoman Iris Reshef said. Though she added that the city did not have any major problems with the cafes.

But other cities closer to the Netherlands' borders have expressed frustration at being bombarded by "drug tourists" from Germany, France or Belgium seeking to stock up on marijuana — an often finding ways to bypass a 5 gram (1/5 ounce) purchase limit.

"If the border areas shut down tomorrow, then (inland cities) Den Helder and Almere will soon be suffering," said Mayor Geert Leers of the southern border city Maastricht.

Representatives at the summit Friday in Almere, 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Amsterdam, also discussed the policy of arresting growers, which left cafes with no way to legally source their most lucrative product.

Eindhoven Mayor Rob van Gijzel said his city wanted to set up a pilot scheme of issuing permits to growers.

"People will be able to ask for a permit to grow for fixed prices," he said after the summit. "It'll be regulated in terms of produce and revenues, but also movement, in transports to the coffee shops."

Amsterdam backed the idea of expanding the tolerance policy to growers, the city spokeswoman said, noting it could help keep organized crime out.

"We don't have any insight to what goes on behind the back door," Reshef said. "What we need is a closed supply chain."

But the national government must approve the scheme, and it was unclear how long that could take or if it was even likely. Polls suggest most voters support decriminalizing marijuana cultivation, but the coalition government is led by the conservative Christian Democrats, which opposes it.

Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin said Thursday he had "no intention" of changing national marijuana policy.

The Dutch Parliament voted to regulate growers once before in 2005, but the government refused, saying it would lead to a confrontation with the European Union.

According to data compiled by the Netherlands' Trimbos Institute for Mental Health and Addiction, after 30 years of the Dutch tolerance policy, usage rates here are somewhere in the middle of international norms — above those in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, but below those of France, Britain and the United States.

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