Pro-pot supporters launch campaign against new Dutch law
Opponents of a Dutch cannabis law that restricts sales of the drug to foreigners have launched a campaign aimed at getting citizens to vote for pro-pot parties in elections next month.
Organisers said they would travel the nation in an old American school bus, painted silver to convince people to vote for "cannabis friendly parties" in the upcoming parliamentary polls.
The campaign would be funded by 140 coffee shops and two wholesale companies selling cannabis paraphernalia, one of the organisers Marc Josemans told AFP from the southern Dutch city of Maastricht where the campaign was launched on Saturday.
"Today we started a 'cannabus campaign'," said Josemans, a Maastricht cannabis cafe owner and campaigner against the new law.
"It's aimed at trying to convince people to vote in a positive way on September 12." The parties say they would abolish the law if they held political power.
The so-called "cannabis card" law came into effect on May 1 and effectively transforms coffee shops into private clubs as it requires around 80 cannabis cafes in the south to sell only to signed-up members who live in the country.
Each shop is allowed a maximum 2 000 "members", who must be aged 18 or older.
Its coverage widens nation-wide to 590 other coffee shops in January 2013, and is aimed at curbing drug tourism-linked disturbances.
Left-wing opposition parties -- including the current largest Labour Party (PvdA), the Socialist Party (SP) and the Party for Animals (PvdD) have said they were against the current law.
"We will do everything to get the 'cannabis-card' law off the table," Socialist Party MP Harry van Bommel said in a video interview published on the Dutch pro-weed news site www.coffeeshopnieuws.nl, adding "this law is part of the problem, not part of the solution".
The PvdA in a statement on their website suggested that coffee shops simply be replaced by "cannabis shops", with the sale of marijuana legalised but strictly controlled.
Although cannabis is technically illegal in the Netherlands, the country in 1976 decriminalised possession of less than five grams of the substance under a so-called tolerance policy.
AFP reports that since the May 1 law came into being, Maastricht -- near the borders with Germany and Belgium and which attracts an estimated 1.4 million "drug tourists" each year mainly from those countries and France -- has become a gold mine for illegal street dealers.
"It's going well – we are selling a lot at the moment," a dealer named Mohammed told AFP as he plied his trade just a few metres from the riverbank where families were strolling in the early afternoon.
Hooking a client, Mohammed fiercely negotiated the sale of five grams of cannabis, eventually selling it for a reduced price of 35 euros ($43).
Nearby, underneath a bridge spanning the river that divides the mediaeval city, 20 other dealers, alone or in groups, hung out, waiting for a piece of the action.
"I also have cocaine, heroin, ecstasy: which one do you want?" asked one, sitting on a motorbike as he gave a prospective client his mobile phone number.
The laws, including the new one, do not deter Mohammed, who said tourists are still coming to Maastricht: "I sell to French, Belgians, Germans and Spanish ... and of course, also to Dutch clients."
Such illegal drug trade has increased dramatically since the cannabis card -- also called the "wietpas" (Dutch for "weed pass") -- was introduced, said Nicole Maalste and Rutger Jan Hebben, researchers from Tilburg University.
They conceded that while fewer dealers have been hanging around the coffee shops since the new law took effect, more people were seeking out illegal sale points or calling the street dealers, who do home delivery.
Less than 100 metres from the Maas is the Easy Going coffee shop. Like six of Maastricht's 14 other coffee shops, it has been shut since May 1 out of protest against the law and because its owner Marc Josemans refuses to discriminate.
"We have lost 90% of our clients" in the city of Maastricht, Josemans said.
As sales fell through the floor, some 600 jobs have also been lost in coffee shops in the southern provinces, said Josemans, who is president of the Maastricht's association of coffee shop owners.
He said a big obstacle was the requirement that smokers sign up for the cannabis card through the municipality, which left many concerned how authorities may use such information.
"The data will never be disclosed," assured Gert-Jan Bos, the Maastricht city spokesman.
And while it was too early to draw conclusions, he said the city already saw positive effects since the card's introduction. The number of visitors who come to Maastricht daily "just" to buy cannabis has dropped from an estimated 10 000 to only a few hundred per day, according to Bos.
And the number of illegal dealers has not increased, he said, while conceding that "they are just more visible and more aggressive."