Dutch ban takes aim at foreigners buying pot

This country of canals and tulips is also famous for "coffee shops" where joints and cappuccinos share the menu. Now, the Netherlands' famed tolerance for drugs could be going up in smoke.

A judge on Friday upheld a government plan to ban foreign tourists from buying marijuana by introducing a "weed pass" available only to Dutch citizens and permanent residents.

The new regulation reins in one of the country's most cherished symbols of tolerance -- its laissez-faire attitude toward soft drugs -- and reflects the drift away from a long-held view of the Netherlands as a freewheeling utopia.

For many tourists visiting Amsterdam the image endures, and smoking a joint in a canal-side coffee shop ranks high on their to-do lists, along with visiting cultural highlights like the Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank House.

Worried that tourism will take a hit, the city's mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, is hoping to hammer out a compromise with the national government, which relies on municipalities and local police to enforce its drug policies.

Relaxing outside The Bulldog, a coffee shop in downtown Amsterdam, Gavin Harrison and Ian Leigh of Northern Ireland said they hoped the city wouldn't change.

"I think it's going to be a shame for Amsterdam, I think it's going to lose a lot of tourists," Harrison said.

Leigh said he had been visiting Amsterdam for a decade and had noticed the erosion of tolerance over the years. "It's taking a step back," he said.

Coffee shop owners have not given up the fight. A week ago they mustered a few hundred patrons for a "smoke-out" in downtown Amsterdam to protest the new restrictions.

A lawyer for the owners, Maurice Veldman, said he would file an appeal against the ruling by The Hague District court, which clears the way for the weed pass to be introduced in southern provinces on Tuesday.

If the government gets its way, the pass will roll out in the rest of the country -- including Amsterdam -- next year. It will turn coffee shops into private clubs with membership open only to Dutch residents and limited to 2,000 per shop.

The Netherlands has more than 650 coffee shops, 214 of them in Amsterdam. The number has been steadily declining as municipalities imposed tougher regulations, such as shuttering ones close to schools.

But the new membership rules are the most significant rollback in years to the traditional Dutch tolerance of marijuana use.

The government argues that the move is justified to crack down on so-called "drug tourists," effectively couriers who drive over the border from neighboring Belgium and Germany to buy large amounts of marijuana and take it home to resell. They cause traffic and public order problems in towns along the Dutch border.

Such issues do not exist in Amsterdam, where most tourists walk or ride bikes and buy pot for their own consumption.

The weed pass "doesn't solve any problems we have here and it could create new problems," said city spokeswoman Tahira Limon.

Many Amsterdam residents agree.

Barring tourists from coffee shops will only drive them into the hands of street dealers, warned Liza Roodhof, unwinding with a friend at an Amsterdam cafe that caters to artsy types.

"If you make it so that tourists can't buy weed in a coffee shop, then they're going to buy it on the street. So you add more problems than you solve," she said.

Her friend Nina Fokker, an actress, also worried about what the ban portends for the Netherlands' image as an open-minded society.

Tolerance "is something beautiful, it has something special, it has something that's authentic about the Netherlands," she said.

It is not just hardcore pot heads taking a toke in the city. Limon said 4 million to 5 million tourists visit Amsterdam each year and around 23 percent say they visit a coffee shop during their stay.

Therese Ariaans of the Dutch tourism board said it was hard to judge the effect on tourism -- it could reduce visits from people wanting to smoke pot but increase tourists previously kept away by Amsterdam's seedy side.

"If the result is that there will be fewer visitors to the Netherlands we would regret that," she said.

Amsterdam argues that the reasons coffee shops were first tolerated decades ago are still relevant today -- they are well-regulated havens where people can buy soft drugs without coming into contact with dealers of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Coffee shops also are banned from serving alcohol and from selling drugs to people under 18.

The government in The Hague said Friday there would be no exceptions to the new rules.

"Amsterdam will also have to enforce this policy," said Job van de Sande, a spokesman for the Ministry of Security and Justice.

The conservative Dutch government introduced the new measures saying it wants to return the shops back to what they were originally intended to be: local shops selling to local people.

However the Dutch government collapsed this week and new elections are scheduled for September. It's unclear whether the new administration will keep the new measures in place.

Coffee shop lawyer Veldman called Friday's ruling a political judgment.

"The judge completely fails to answer the principal question: Can you discriminate against foreigners when there is no public order issue at stake?" he asked.

Coffee shop owners in the southern city of Maastricht have said they plan to disregard the new measure, forcing the government to prosecute them in a test case.

Back in Amsterdam, Leigh hoped the weed pass was a marketing stunt to drum up business.

"It's a recession," he said. "Maybe it's a publicity stunt as well -- get people to come over in a mad rush before it happens."