The introduction of weed passes to buy marijuana from coffeeshops in the Netherlands can go ahead. That is the conclusion of the Ministry of Security and Justice following the latest ruling by the country’s highest administrative court and advisory body, the Council of State.
Many local councils oppose introducing this measure to discourage drug tourism in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, the Christian Democrats have devised a way to get around the new law: tourists can buy weed passes from the hotel doorman.
It is a complex issue. Dutch border towns are inundated with drug tourists, who come to coffeeshops to buy cannabis. To keep foreigners out, the government wants to introduce a club card which is only available to Dutch nationals over the age of 18. It has been dubbed the weed pass. But critics say the measure will stimulate the sale of drugs on the street, which creates even bigger problems.
The city of Maastricht wanted to introduce a weed pass back in 2006, but the Council of State ruled that the municipality was not authorised to do so. It stated that a pass system could only be introduced if the national drug legislation, the Opium Act, was changed. That is what Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten wants but local councils - including Maastricht - oppose the change.
Labour MP Lea Bouwmeester welcomes the Council of State's ruling.
“It means the minister has to look for an alternative and will have to consult local councils. Changing the Opium Act is very complicated, because it actually states that selling soft drugs is illegal. So it would be strange to say that introducing a weed pass is somehow allowed.”
Amsterdam city council – which has far more coffee shops than any other municipality - also opposes its introduction because it will encourage drug peddling on the street. Get tough on street peddling and introduce the weed pass, is what the Christian Democrats are saying in the council chambers. At present, there is only a ban on selling cannabis to the under-18s. Christian Democrat councillor Lex van Drooge comments:
“We are in favour of the weed pass, because it means that using drugs is not regarded as the norm. In schools in Amsterdam, some pupils smoke a lot of cannabis, they drop out of school, and there is an increase in schizophrenia. We do not want that. If people want to use cannabis for enjoyment, that's up to them. We are not fervently against that, but it should not be the norm.” He hopes that the system is introduced within a year.
The city council is pragmatic too. Around four million tourists come to the capital every year. Around one million of them buy and use soft drugs. That makes the coffeeshops important to the city’s economy. The Christian Democrats have a solution for tourists:
“If you want to, you can resolve this problem, but you have to be careful. You could for instance buy a temporary weed pass for a coffeeshop. I am not really concerned about the roughly seven percent of tourists who come here to use cannabis.”
Ms Bouwmeester does not think weed passes should be introduced everywhere in the country. She thinks the government should take regional differences into account:
“Leeuwarden, Amsterdam and Maastricht cannot be compared. In Venlo – near Maastricht - coffeeshops have been moved to the edge of town. This has been shown to work. The minister has to start listening to the local councils and let go of his own ideas.”
The Council of State ruling has been a long time coming. The question now is whether the government is actually ready to change the Opium Act.