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Belgian mayors demand closure of Dutch marijuana shops

By Adriana Stuijt     Feb 13, 2009 in Crime
25 Belgian mayors today travelled to a coffee shop in the Dutch city of Maastricht to ask just one thing from the local mayor: to close down his hugely popular coffee shops. The Belgian mayors warned of growing Flemish addiction and related criminality.
The Belgian mayors warned that the growing Flemish addiction to the high-potency Dutch weed was taking on alarming proportions and was creating massive crime- and addiction waves in their towns.
The Dutch are marching out of step with the rest of the EU-countries with their tolerance policy towards cannabis purchase points, referred to as coffee shops. Mayor Johan Sauwens of the Belgian border town of Bilzen kicked off the campaign last year, and was joined by 24 other Belgian mayors in very short order.
Today they gathered in a Maastricht coffee shop to discuss the thorny issue with the local mayor, Geerd Leers.
Maastricht is a youthful city, a university town in the heart of Europe only an hour by car from Brussels, Antwerp, Luxembourg, Cologne and Düsseldorf. And while it also produces some of the finest asparagus in Europe, it's much more famous for its high-class marijuana.
Because of the ancient city's fabulous ambiance and the large number of coffee shops in the centre of town, it draws about 1,2-million drugs tourists a year, mainly from Germany, Belgium and France, drawn to the very attractive coffeeshops such as the Mississippi and Smokey coffeeshop boats, lying near each other in the centre of town in the Meuse river.
These two boats alone draw about 200,000 customers a year - and also, as tax-paying, legal enterprises, also generate a lot of revenue for the city. The foreign druggie-tourists' blogs are full of praise: but the Belgian neighbours, and indeed also many residents in downtown Maastricht, are sick and tired of the criminalising effect of the drug-tourism trade.
Though several EU nations have relaxed their laws on soft drugs somewhat, the Netherlands leads the way in regulating their sale. Coffeeshops are licensed and no alcohol can be sold or consumed in them. However there's a strangely contradictory law: technically all drugs remain illegal in the Netherlands though coffee shops are permitted to sell a maximum of five grammes of cannabis without facing prosecution.
And while it is an offence to produce, possess, sell, import or export hard drugs or cannabis, it is not illegal to use drugs. That means it is legal for a customer to buy five grammes of cannabis in a coffee shop, but it is illegal for the shop to acquire the stock to sell. While the law has decriminalised those who use cannabis in small quantities it has not done the same for those who grow it or buy it into their coffee shops.
Maastricht is in the front line because of the massive demand from German, Belgian and French day-trippers.
But local residents have also grown sick and tired of the growing crime, the zapped out drug-tourists and the traffic streams through their streets, and want them moved out of the centre of town.
And the mayors of 25 adjacent Belgian cities also have had enough of the growing drug-addiction among their youths, and the resultant increase in crime -- and want Maastricht to close them down altogether. It's a Dutch experiment which has clearly failed, they said.
After months of pressure by the Belgian mayors, the mayor of Almere near Amsterdam --- former cabinet minister Annemarie Jorritsma -- decided to arrange today's meeting with the Belgian and Dutch mayors to try and find some kind of middle-ground: encouraging them to 'formulate a policy together which could also be submitted to the Dutch cabinet. see
Peter Tans, head of communications for the Maastricht police, says that, of the estimated 21,000 people charged with crimes this year in south Limburg, 4,500 will be foreigners.
To supply the demand at coffee shops - inflated by foreigners - Maastricht now supports a massive, subterranean cannabis-producing industry of its own.
By 2006, the city's police alredy were doing nothing else except busting drug-dealers and illicit cannabis plantations. That year alone, 78kg of cannabis was seized and 43,000 adult cannabis plants destroyed.
Much of this had been farmed out to low-income households on the dole, under the supervision of criminal gangs - and very often the arrested criminals are Middle-Easterners and Antillians.
This identical problem was also identified in the coffee shops in downtown Amsterdam, where harddrug crime gangs and prostitution, even sex-slavery with imported youngsters, often go hand-in-hand. That city too, has recently decided to crack down hard on the criminal gangs which gravitate to their red-light and coffee shop district.
The police in Maastricht too have been working hard ever since about 2005 to clean up the city, often raiding homes around the city whenever alerted by the power companies of electricity surges of the type required to run the lamps for cannabis plants (usually power supplies are diverted illegally). According to police calculations, a producer can make €97,640 (£67,000) profit a year by cultivating 18 sq metres of cannabis plants.
Hard-drug criminal gangs growing in size, aggression:
More alarmingly, the Maastricht police find that this subculture is also making Maastricht fertile territory for gangs dealing in hard drugs. This started from about 2005, the year the police made 193 arrests in 23 raids, seizing 10kg of heroin, 1.5kg of cocaine, 12,000 ecstasy tablets, €171,000 in cash and 11 firearms.
And by February 2009, this problem still was very evident: there is an alarming increase in the number of drug-busts where hard-drugs are found this year instead of cannabis, police say. The latest bust, on February 12 2009, was of three Iraqi drugs-dealers. Police confiscated half a kilo of heroine, some cocaine, confiscated a car and 5,500 Euros in cash under the Dutch law allowing seizure by the State of assets gained from criminal activities.
Belgian Mayor Sauwens at the meeting on February 13 said Maastricht, less than 15 km from Bilzen, should follow the example of two other Dutch border towns, Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom, which late last year, announced a zero-drugs policy and plan to close all their coffeeshops.
He also shot down the Maastricht mayor's plan, tabled last year to move the seven coffeeshops in the centre of Maastricht to the edge of the city, away from residential and popular downtown shopping and entertainment areas -- and to mainly industrial sites which would be much easier to patrol and monitor by police. The river boats would be moved to the very edge of the city, in the river-side industrial container Beatrix harbour, for instance.
He called this his 'Coffeecorners' concept -- because they would be located at the corners of the city, where drug tourists would find it much easier to reach them. The shops would be moved from the traditional city centre and new ones there would not be tolerated.
However the Belgian mayors are none to happy with this Coffeecorner plan - they want all the coffeeshops to close altogether because their presence causes major crime-problems in their own regions next to Maastricht. see
Mayor Leers conceded this point and announced that he would shelve the Coffeecorner plan temporarily to 'further the dialogue between the mayors and the city'.
The Dutch Ministry in The Hague is also in favour of trying to find a solution to this growing problem for the regional drugs-problems, he said and he was very eager to reach some kind of compromise.
To establish the exact extent of the problen this socalled Euregio Meuse-Rhine district, a joint study was launched by researchers Fijnaut of the University of Tilburg and De Ruyver of Gent University. The joint study, funded by the Flemish and Dutch municipalities, would also make recommendations on a future bi-country police cooperation policy, and try to develop a combined drug-control strategy.
The main point of contention between the Belgians the Dutch however, remains the Dutch policy of tolerance towards cannabis shops, the Belgians say. The Belgians discourage them as much as possible, although they are pragmatic about cannabis ownership for individuals.
The problem is that the Dutch coffeeshops serve as a massive drawing card for Flemish customers, who buy the stuff in The Netherlands and deal with it in Belgium, creating an atmosphere of criminality, the mayors say.
The Belgian mayors also referred to the recent Dutch government report on the negative results of this official policy. This report shows that the negative aspects are far greater for towns with coffee shops than the positive aspects, i.e. the increased tax-revenues for the municipalities.
The living conditions in Dutch suburbs deteriorate for residents as soon coffee shops open up: causing an increased cost in policing, with stepped-up staffing of police stations to keep up with the growing and increasingly aggressive type of crime.
The police also warn of this, pointing out that around coffee shops, there's more crime - burglaries, thefts, robberies, attacks on citizens by drug addicts; a stream of often unruly, often foreign drug-tourists which also cause unrest and an unsafe feeling atmosphere for local residents, especially the elderly and those with young children often show growing concern -- and there's the problem of increased drug addiction amongst youngsters. Dutch cannibis, the medical profession is warning, is also increasingly addictive, which makes the jump to cocaine more logical and easier.
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