AMSTERDAM – The new conservative Dutch government wants to force the country's marijuana cafes to become "members only" clubs, a move that would effectively block foreigners from buying the drug.
If the idea ever becomes reality — it would be legally complicated and politically divisive — it would be the latest of the country's liberal policies to be scrapped or curtailed as the Dutch rethink the limits of their famed tolerance.
While marijuana is technically illegal in the Netherlands, it has been sold openly in designated cafes for decades, and police make no arrests for possession of small amounts.
Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten said that in the future, only residents of Dutch cities will be allowed to purchase cannabis. "Not tourists. We don't like that," he said on state television in remarks broadcast Wednesday.
His spokesman Wim van der Weegen said Thursday Opstelten intended to "give a political signal." He said details of the plan are still being worked out and it will be presented to parliament sometime next year.
"This Cabinet wants to bring marijuana cafes back to what they were once intended to be: for people who live in the immediate area, not large-scale criminal trade and not tourism," he said.
The city of Amsterdam, which has an image as a haven for weed smokers and potentially stands to lose a major tourist attraction if the policy is enforced, is not enthusiastic about the proposal.
"We're looking at it now, considering it, and a formal response is coming," said spokesman Bas Bruijn.
Last year, then-Mayor Job Cohen said he feared a system requiring users to obtain passes "risks increasing street trade and 'illegal' sales points."
Marijuana cafe owners scoffed at the idea of member passes as political posturing and unworkable in practice. "It's not going to happen," said Michael Veling, spokesman for the Union of Cannabis Retailers and owner of the 4:20 cafe in Amsterdam.
"I'm not worried because I have something in my head that's called common sense."
He predicted it will prove difficult for the government to make rules regulating marijuana cafes without first legalizing marijuana.
European law forbids treating citizens of one European Union country different from that of another, and marijuana shop owners will have difficulty knowing who is a local resident without access to city government databases.
The new Dutch government that took office in October is comprised of two conservative parties with the support of the far-right anti-Islam party of populist Geert Wilders.
Crime, immigration and safety issues have dominated Dutch political debate for a decade, leading to measures such as imprisoning asylum seekers, outlawing psychedelic mushrooms, mandating citizenship classes for immigrants and forcing people to carry ID cards.
Amsterdam has resisted enforcing some of the conservative trends. For instance, it rejected a 2008 ban on marijuana cafes near schools that would have led to the closure of nearly all the bars, commonly known as "coffee shops."
But it has accepted others. In 2006, the city shut down a third of its legal brothels, saying they were a magnet for criminals.
Amsterdam's new mayor Eberhard van der Laan was the most prominent among Dutch municipal leaders this month in attempting to enforce a new nationwide law criminalizing "squatting" in unoccupied buildings.
Dutch marijuana policy has been a sore point in relations with the U.S. and Europe over the years, and increasingly within the country itself. Dutch cities in the far south complain they suffer from crime caused by the illicit marijuana trade as German, Belgian and French dealers drive to border towns such as Maastricht to purchase supplies.
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.