Drug Tourists Go Dutch


Gerd Leers was once a staunch prohibitionist in the Dutch Parliament, but three years as a local leader have changed his perspective. Leers, now the Mayor of Maastricht, a Dutch border city, is calling for the creation of "cannabis boulevards" in border areas to ease problems associated with cross-border drug tourism. He also seeks regulation of the supply of marijuana to coffee shops to eliminate a robust black market created by the fact that production of the plant is illegal in the Netherlands.

Border areas attract a large number of "drug tourists" from Germany, Belgium and France. Maastricht has 1.5 million visitors every year, the majority of whom come not only to enjoy the pleasant atmosphere of the city, but also to buy marijuana. The demand created by these tourists is accompanied by an increase in drug-related crime. Because it is illegal to grow marijuana in the Netherlands, police in Maastricht spend a great deal of time removing home-based grow operations. Small plantations exist mostly in the houses of low-income families, but are overseen by professional criminals.

This strategy allows those running the plantations to take smaller losses when the grow operations are raided, while impoverished families take the fall. This "cottage industry" also gives rise to turf wars among the groups running plantations. In addition, border towns wrestle with crime related to the illegal sale of larger amounts of marijuana than are available in the official -- strictly regulated -- coffee shops, and crime related to the sale of illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Leers advocates legalization of marijuana production, and supports the idea of centralized locations where people can buy marijuana -- "cannabis boulevards" -- to alleviate the impact of drug tourism on border cities. Last month, the Netherlands' Minister of Government Reform and Inner City Problems, Alexander Pechtold, spoke out in support of the "cannabis boulevard" approach, and advocated loosening European Union (EU) policies around marijuana as a long-term solution.

Pechtold's position -- at loggerheads with that of the more conservative Minister of Justice, Piet Hein Donner -- was backed by the mayors of 20 of the 30 most populous cities in the Netherlands. In the wake of Pechtold's comments, the Dutch Parliament held a debate about possible experimentation with marijuana policy, which resulted in two motions: one instructing the Dutch government to approach other EU governments for their views on a more liberal marijuana policy, and the other telling the government to develop experiments exploring the regulation of marijuana growth to supply coffee shops.

Leers recently convened a conference of experts and local authorities from the area as well as the adjoining German and Belgian provinces to work toward a regional liberalization arrangement that could also serve as an example for other European regions, given that an EU-wide arrangement does not seem likely any time soon.

Speakers at the conference (among them law professors, representatives of the treatment sector, the Lord Mayor of the Belgian city of Liege and the President of the Association of Maastricht Coffeeshops) stressed the advantages of the Dutch public health approach to drug policy, which results in generally lower problematic drug use than is seen in the neighboring German and Belgian provinces. They also presented statistics that they said demonstrate the superiority of this approach to more repressive policies practiced in countries like the United States and elsewhere.

The conference adopted a resolution calling for closer regional cooperation on law enforcement and experimentation with strictly regulated and certified marijuana growing at the regional level. A follow-up conference with more concrete proposals will take place later this year.

This strategy by authorities at the local and regional level has a parallel in state-based drug policy reform work in the United States. The traditional "laboratories of democracy," states often blaze the trail for the slower-moving federal government to embrace reform. Similarly, regional reforms in Europe initiated by Leers and others who recognize that repressive policies do not work can pave the way for common sense drug policy reforms in the EU as a whole.

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