Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Dutch to plug dyke against tide of German drug tourists

The Guardian, 24th February 2003 13:29

By Andrew Osborn

Fed up with thrill-seeking German drug tourists, the Netherlands has decided to turn the hundreds of coffee shops which line its border into German-free zones.

The plan - which would involve ordering coffee shops in areas bordering Germany to serve only Dutch residents in possession of valid "membership cards" - is causing a stir.

But the justice ministry and local officials say they will press ahead. The problem, they say, is becoming unbearable.

Thousands of Germans visit every day to take advantage of the Netherlands' fabled coffee shop culture. The result, say the authorities, is that dozens of towns have been transformed into open-air drug supermarkets, stalked by aggressive drug dealers and criminals.

"Thousands of young Germans, especially schoolchildren, cross into the Netherlands," said Victor Holtus, a justice ministry spokesman.

"One of the options we're looking at is to have coffee shops which only serve people who live in the Netherlands. That's what we want to do."

The problem, he says, is at its worst in Venlo. Nestled on the banks of the river Maas in the south of the country, this town of 90,000 people is just five minutes' drive from the German border and is awash with drugs, dealers, and tourists. Five million Germans live within 30 miles, and as many as 4,000 of them visit every day.

On the Maaskade embankment, coffee shop windows are packed with books on drug use and drug paraphernalia. On the street, dealers or "runners" compete for business.

As soon as a new car pulls up the young men stroll up to the window. "Hashish, marijuana, cocaine?" one dealer asks a German couple in an Audi, before making an exchange.

"It's not allowed over there, but here it's tolerated," says Jamal, 25, one of the runners.

"This whole trade runs right along the border from north to south. For those who smoke, I can tell you, Venlo is paradise."

Unsurprisingly, the government's plan to get rid of the German drug tourists is angering the dealers. "They can't do it, and if they do, everyone and everything will go underground and on to the streets," says one coffee shop owner.

Dealers are also scornful of claims that their business creates a threatening atmosphere, and accuse the authorities - who closed 50 illegal coffee shops last year in Venlo - of being too heavy-handed.

"This government has been very difficult," says Soma, 20, who describes himself as a political refugee from Somalia and a drug dealer. "People only want to make money here.

"The government is not fair. They just want to be more in control so that they can tax us. It's all about money."

Dutch law stipulates that a maximum of five grams can be sold over the counter in a licensed coffee shop to anyone over 18, but many German customers are in search of larger quantities and are under 18.

The runners and the illegal coffee shops, of which there are estimated to be around 65 in Venlo (as against just five official ones) are therefore plugging a large gap in the market.

As night falls Oase, one of the town's official coffee shops, is doing a roaring trade. The lights are dimmed, German rap blares from the radio and young Germans have collapsed into the blue and beige sofas.

Although the two Dutchmen work fast distributing the hashish and pre-rolled joints in little plastic sealed bags, the queue never seems to go down.

Outside, Leopoldus, a retired solicitor in his 60s, peers into the window. "I don't like it at all," he says. "We are liberal and open-minded, but you have to make a distinction between the provinces here in the south and the west. We are more conservative here. I can understand soft drugs, but these people are doing hard drugs too."