AMSTERDAM – Dutch coffee shop owners went to court Wednesday in a last ditch bid to block a government plan to stop foreigners from buying marijuana in the Netherlands.
Lawyers representing the coffee shops oppose what would be the most significant change in decades to the country's famed soft drug tolerance: turning marijuana cafes into "members only" clubs open solely to Dutch residents.
Members would only be able to get into the coffee shops by registering for a "weed pass" and the shops would only be allowed a maximum of 2,000 members.
The move comes into force in the south of the country May 1 and is scheduled to roll out nationwide on Jan. 1, 2013.
Whether it will be enforced in Amsterdam, whose coffee shops are a major tourist draw card, remains to be seen.
The city has strongly opposed the pass idea and mayor Eberhard van der Laan says he wants to negotiate a workable compromise with the country's Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten.
Lawyers for the cafe owners told a judge at The Hague District Court that the move — aimed at reining in problems caused by foreign "drug tourists" who buy marijuana in the Netherlands and resell it in neighboring countries — is "clearly discriminatory."
Lawyer Ilonka Kamans argued that Dutch drugs policy gives citizens "the fundamental right to the stimulant of their choosing" and should not deprive visiting foreigners of the same right.
Another of the coffee shop lawyers, Maurice Veldman, told The Associated Press outside the court that the problem of drug tourism is confined to southern provinces close to the Dutch border with Germany and Belgium and should be tackled with local measures, not nationwide legislation.
But government lawyer Eric Daalder defended the measures.
"Fighting criminality and drug tourism is a reasonable justification" for the crackdown, Daalder told the court.
He said the government wants to bring coffee shops back to what they were originally intended to be: "small local stores selling to local people."
Marc Josemans of the Easy Going coffee shop in Maastricht said he expects the government will lose because it hasn't thought through consequences or tried other ways of achieving its aims.
"We understand that this topic is something that's of interest to tourists, but it's equally important to our Dutch customers, which is most of them," he told the AP ahead of Wednesday's hearing.
"The limits on membership are going to lead to immediate problems in cities that don't have enough coffee shops."
Josemans said that if the court's April 27 ruling goes against them, the Maastricht coffee shops plan to disregard the ruling, forcing the government to prosecute one of them in a test case.
Though the weed pass policy was designed to resolve traffic problems facing southern cities, later studies have predicted that the result of the system would be a return to street dealing and an increase in petty crime — which was the reason for the tolerance policy came into being in the 1970s in the first place.
The cities of Tilburg, Breda and Maastricht have now said they oppose the pass system, though Eindhoven plans to move ahead with it and the eastern city of Dordrecht wants to adopt it in anticipation of an influx of foreign buyers — even though it is not yet required to do so.
Marijuana cafes are a major tourist draw for Amsterdam, with some estimates saying a third of visitors try the drug, perhaps in between visiting the Van Gogh Museum and other major attractions.
Mayor Van der Laan says the Dutch capital doesn't suffer major problems from pot smokers, and it doesn't make sense to apply the same policy developed for the border cities here.
According to U.N. data, the use of marijuana by Dutch nationals is in the mid-range of norms for developed countries — higher than in Sweden or Japan but lower than in Britain, France or the United States.
In the face of growing evidence linking marijuana smoking with mental illness, the Dutch government has been placing new restrictions on coffee shops for a decade. It has set limits on the amount of active chemicals that can be contained in weed and hash; refused to renew licenses for shops that cause problems or are located too close to schools; and banned tobacco smoking at coffee shops in 2008.
Corder reported from The Hague.