“Cannabis? Marijuana? I have it all!” said a young man named Mohammed as he stood on the banks of the Maas River in the heart of the southeastern Dutch city of Maastricht.
A new law took effect in May allowing the owners of legalized cannabis cafes in the southern Netherlands to sell only to Dutch residents, no longer to foreigners.
Since then, Maastricht — near the borders with Germany and Belgium and which attracts an estimated 1.4 million “drug tourists” each year mainly from those countries and France — has become a gold mine for illegal street dealers like Mohammed.
“It’s going well — we are selling a lot at the moment,” he told AFP as he plied his trade just a few meters (yards) from the riverbank where families were strolling in the early afternoon.
Hooking a client, Mohammed fiercely negotiated the sale of five grams of cannabis, eventually selling it for a reduced price of 35 euros ($43).
Nearby, underneath a bridge spanning the river that divides the mediaeval city, 20 other dealers, alone or in groups, hung out, waiting for a piece of the action.
“I also have cocaine, heroin, ecstasy: which one do you want?” asked one, sitting on a motorbike as he gave a prospective client his mobile phone number.
The contentious new law, which took effect on May 1, effectively transformed the 80 or so coffee shops across the south into private clubs. Not only can they sell only to Dutch residents, but customers are required to sign up with their cafe of choice.
Each shop is allowed a maximum 2,000 “members”, who must be aged 18 or older.
The new “cannabis card” law goes nationwide next January, when it will also apply to the other 590 coffee shops around the country. It aims to curb drug tourism-linked disturbances such as late-night rabble-rousing, traffic jams and illegal drug pushing.
Although cannabis is technically illegal in The Netherlands, the country decriminalized possession of less than five grams in 1976 under a so-called tolerance policy, but it can be sold only in the specialised coffee shops.
‘We have lost 90 percent of our clients’
The laws, including the new one, do not deter Mohammed, who said tourists are still coming to Maastricht: “I sell to French, Belgians, Germans and Spanish… and of course, also to Dutch clients.”
Such illegal drug trade has increased dramatically since the cannabis card — also called the “wietpas” (Dutch for “weed pass”) — was introduced, said Nicole Maalste and Rutger Jan Hebben, researchers from Tilburg University.
They conceded that while fewer dealers have been hanging around the coffee shops since the new law took effect, more people were seeking out illegal sale points or calling the street dealers, who do home delivery.
Less than 100 meters from the Maas is the Easy Going coffee shop. Like six of Maastricht’s 14 other coffee shops, it has been shut since May 1 out of protest against the law and because its owner Marc Josemans refuses to discriminate.
“We have lost 90 percent of our clients” in the city of Maastricht, Josemans said.
As sales have fallen through the floor, 600 jobs have also been lost in coffee shops in the southern provinces, said Josemans, who is president of the Maastricht’s association of coffee shop owners.
He said a big obstacle was the requirement that smokers sign up for the cannabis card through the municipality, which left many concerned how authorities may use such information.
“The data will never be disclosed,” assured Gert-Jan Bos, the Maastricht city spokesman.
And while it was too early to draw conclusions, he said the city had already seen positive effects since the card’s introduction. The number of visitors who come to Maastricht daily “just” to buy cannabis has dropped from an estimated 10,000 to only a few hundred per day, according to Bos.
And the number of illegal dealers has not increased, he said, while conceding that “they are just more visible and more aggressive.”