Friday, 16 July 2010

Dutch get green light to ban foreigners from coffee shops

The Netherlands has long been known, particularly by many Americans, as a drug tourism destination. For years, the Dutch have complained that while they support the decision to end the prohibition on marijuana use, the fact that other countries don’t have the same policy means the country has become a magnet for wacked-out partiers and troublemakers.

One Dutch town decided it had had enough, and it banned foreigners from its ‘coffee shops’, the name for establishments that sell marijuana. That town is Maastricht, which says it is particularly vulnerable to drug-tourism because of its geography in the thin Dutch tail at the Southeast of the country. Sandwiched between Belgium and Germany, Maastricht, much like its border neighbor Breda, has gained a reputation as the place where Belgians, French and Germans go to buy weed. So Maastricht banned its coffee shops from selling to foreigners, and when a coffee shop was shut down for selling marijuana to two non-Dutch EU citizens, that coffee shop sued.

Right from when they established the law, Maastricht must have known they would have a legal fight on their hands. Banning EU citizens from other countries from consuming a product which Dutch citizens can consume is a blatant violation of EU free movement law, which stipulates that EU citizens must be given equal treatment to native citizens in any EU country. This right is perhaps the cornerstone of the European Union.

So it was surprising to see the Advocate General’s opinion come down so strongly in favour of a right to ban EU citizens from consuming a legal product in the Netherlands. In his opinion, the AG said that the sale of narcotics do not benefit from freedom of movement rules because they are illegal. However he added that marijuana for medical or scientific use would come under internal market rules.

Now the European Court of Justice judges won’t make a final ruling on this until the end of the year. The Advocate General is a sort of advisory judge who gives his or her legal opinion to the final judges (it’s based on the French legal system which works this way, I can’t quite explain the logic). But the final judges usually follows the advice of the AG, so it looks like Dutch towns will be able to forbid coffee shops from selling marijuana to foreigners by next year.

Now whether marijuana is an 'illegal narcotic' in the Netherlands is sort of a grey area. Cannabis is still a controlled substance in the Netherlands, but the Dutch Ministry of Justice has an outlined policy that possession or sale of marijuana is not prosecuted. But because this is a specifically outlined legal policy, marijuana is de-facto legal.

Based on the premise that marijuana is de-facto legal in the Netherlands, I find the advocate general's position a bit puzzling. If you took this opinion’s logic to its natural conclusion, EU states would be able to ban sales to foreigners of any product that is illegal in another EU country. Any EU country could forbid selling fireworks to foreigners because they are illegal in Ireland. French towns could ban selling foie gras to foreigners because it is illegal in several EU countries. Eastern European towns could forbid selling absinth, which has varying legal status across the union.

And what about abortion? Or euthanasia? Can a town in the UK now ban foreigners from receiving abortions because it is illegal in Ireland and Poland? Can a town in Germany ban doctors from performing euthanasia on foreigners because it’s illegal in most EU countries? And perhaps more immediately relevant, can Dutch towns now ban prostitutes from having sex with foreigners?

It’s a slippery slope, and the fact is that EU member states have different laws about a number of products and services. Such discrepancies also exist between US states. For instance, New Hampshire is the only state in the New England region that allows the sale of fireworks. So every Fourth of July, my family in Connecticut would drive up to New Hampshire to buy fireworks. I can’t imagine that a New Hampshire town would have the legal basis to ban the sale of fireworks to out-of-state residents. Tattooing is also illegal in several states, and people often have to drive to another state to get a tattoo.

On the other hand, these smaller Dutch towns near the border do have legitimate reason to be upset. The mayor of Maastricht has estimated that around 70% of the town’s coffeeshop customers come from outside the country. He says they bring with them problems of crime and public order. And Dutch people have long complained that the center of Amsterdam has been made into a no-go area for them because it is now infested with boatloads of British and American backpackers looking to get high and go wild. Should Dutch towns have the right to protect their citizens from this nuisance? Or should EU common market rules reign supreme above all? It’s a tough call.


Anonymous said...

I wonder how happy the locals would be when tourism dries up and the prices for locals rises to compensate

Matt said...

Ha yes I agree with the above, have you been to Maastricht? It's a dump! There's nothing else to do there but smoke weed!

Brad said...

Matt, you're wrong about Maastricht. It's a beautiful city, I've been there many times. Clean, the people are friendly. Has some excellent coffee shops as well where I'd drive up to stock up on weed (I live in Zurich). Too bad about the ban, but there are plenty of places nearby where you can still get some smoke if you want it.