Dutch smoking ban spells disaster for 'coffee shops'

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From the start it was clear that the new smoking ban in the Netherlands would apply to public places like hotels, bars and restaurants, as well as nightclubs, sports centres and cinemas. But will it also extend to these coffee shops?

In these special cafés, of which there are more than 700 in the Netherlands, customers are allowed to buy a maximum of three grams of marijuana or hashish. Many customers linger in the coffee shop to smoke a joint and enjoy a coffee or fruit juice.

Separate smoking room
A majority in parliament wanted to exempt coffee shops from the ban. There was concern that the government was seeking to use anti-smoking policy to restrict coffee shops and toughen up drugs policy via the back door.

Health Minister Ab Klink however, took no notice: in future smoking will also be taboo in coffee shops. Smokers will only be able to light up if there is a separate smoking room. The sale of the soft drugs has to take place in a smoke-free area. However, smoking pure marijuana or hashish - without tobacco - will be allowed throughout the premises.

Coffee shop owners suspicious
A brief tour of coffee shops in the Netherlands reveals that the owners and managers are particularly concerned about the possible consequences of the smoking ban.

They are worried that local governments, which are responsible for enforcing the ban, will use it as a roundabout way of getting rid of coffee shops. Nearly all the coffee shop owners wish to remain anonymous to avoid attracting attention from the authorities. One Amsterdam owner is pessimistic about the future:

"The Lower House has said the government can't sneakily clamp down on coffee shops like this, but it'll happen anyway. We still don't know exactly where we stand. Do we have to forbid customers from smoking joints or not? Many shops don't have the room to rebuild. If we can only stay open as an outlet for soft drugs, we'll lose our guaranteed turnover."

Elsewhere in the country there is also uncertainty about what exactly is going to happen, and there is a suspicion of local government. Take one coffee shop in Tilburg, for example, which has previously seen fierce protests against the so-called "back-door policy" in the Netherlands.

The policy refers to a system whereby coffeeshops are allowed to sell marijuana and hashish to their customers via the "front door", but are not to buy in supplies via the "back door". The manager of this particular coffee shop isn't very keen to comment on the smoking ban, he shrugs:

"The mayor here has already got it in for us and now he has an easy way of dealing with us. There are already stories going round that after three or four fines for smoking, they'll shut down your business. The Lower House [of parliament] needs to be a lot more alert to the way local authorities are dealing with the new policy. But they say this and that about it and then there's deafening silence again."

Coffee shop neighbourhoods at risk
Another coffee shop owner, also from Tilburg, takes a rather more pragmatic view than many others in the trade. He isn't worried about his turnover falling after 1 July, but does foresee major problems for residents living in the vicinity of a coffee shop if customers are no longer allowed to smoke inside. Furthermore, he has no doubt the resulting problem will end up in the local government's lap:

"They'll be faced with lots of problems and they'll only realise afterwards.That's how it always goes. Something has to happen before the government takes action." The smoking ban in bars and restaurants hasn't come without a struggle, and the ban in coffee shops has been particularly contentious. After all, the only reason you go to a coffee shop is to smoke.

"It's like banning alcohol in bars," sighed conservative VVD MP Edith Schippers during one of the many heated debates in parliament on this issue.

* RNW translation (mb)