Netherlands bans tourists from buying marijuana. Yes, in Amsterdam, too.

The Netherlands has banned non-residents from buying marijuana in the country. Neighboring governments are pleased, but the country's coffee shop owners and opposition party are not.

Michael Kooren/Reuters
People participate in a protest march against a ban on selling cannabis to foreigners in front of the town hall in Maastricht on Tuesday.

For visitors to the Netherlands who enjoy the relaxing effects of marijuana, life has just become a little less easy going, particularly for those Germans living just west of the border who used to just pop over for a fresh supply. New legislation is restricting the sale of cannabis to residents of the country and banning tourists from purchasing the drug at the coffee shops, famous for selling it.

The new law, drafted by the center-right government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, officially came into effect on Jan. 1. It demands that the approximately 700 coffee shops in the country, where the sale of small amounts of soft drugs is tolerated, turn into members-only clubs, allowing only Dutch residents 18 and older and over to apply for membership. 

“The ‘open door’ policy currently pursued by coffee shops will come to an end," Mr. Rutte said in a statement. “The objective is to combat the nuisance and crime associated with coffee shops and the trade in drugs.”

The lax approach to drugs in the Netherlands has irritated its European neighbors for some time.

Officially, the possession and sale of cannabis is illegal in the Netherlands too, but under the so-called gedoogbeleid (policy of tolerance), owning a maximum amount of five grams for personal use is not prosecuted. Under that same policy, coffee shops are allowed to stash a maximum of 500 grams at any given time and sell that in amounts of up to 5 grams.

The practice led to a flourishing of coffee shops as drug outlets and a tourist industry depending on them. An estimated third of all visitors to urban centers like Amsterdam and Maastricht are believed to be looking not just for museums full of Dutch masters or a boat ride on a canal but also for pot, according to the Amsterdam City Council. In the border town of Maastricht, some 70 percent of coffee shop customers are non-residents.

Given the possible effect the new rules could have on tourism, and the likelihood of legal procedures against the discrimination against fellow Europeans, the Dutch authorities opted for a slow start – enforcement of the law began only this month in three southern provinces, next to Belgium, France and Germany. Those are the locations outside the capital where so-called drug tourism is busiest. The rest of the country is meant to follow in January 2013.

Coffee shops and the political opposition are putting up resistance.

In a last-ditch attempt to stop enforcement of the new law, 19 coffee shop owners took the government to court, arguing that the exclusion of tourists discriminated against EU rights of free movement and infringed on people’s privacy. However, the Hague court ruled last week that it could see no such discrimination and that the law aimed to reduce drug tourism and drug-related crime.

The mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, said his city had no problems with drug crimes and that a compromise was needed. He is also expected to stage a legal challenge before implementation in his city.

Lea Bouwmeester, a member of parliament (MP) with the opposition Labor Party, argues that the tolerant approach to possession has worked well at keeping drugs in check. “It is the supply side that we need to control,” she says. “The growing of cannabis and the wholesale supply take place in the illegal circuit.” 

The outcome of the policy change is uncertain and could be influenced, of all things, by the eurozone crisis. Last month Rutte’s minority government collapsed after it lost the support of the populist Freedom Party in a debate over a new package of austerity measures. What course on drugs a new government ( when it comes in after September elections) is still up in the air.

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