by Martijn on 08/07/2013 | Legal & Politics

The Weed pass: a high price to pay

The measure to stamp out drug tourism in the southern regions of the Netherlands has resulted in a redundant legal battle between coffeeshop owners and the government. How far can it go?


The measure to stamp out drug tourism in the southern regions of the Netherlands has resulted in a redundant legal battle between coffeeshop owners and the government. How far can it go?

On the 5th of June 2013 a court ordered the government to compensate the coffeeshop owners, who say they lost money due to the weed pass regulation. The Hague district court concluded that the measure had the unnecessary effect of deterring local customers. However, they have considered the goal of preventing non-residents from buying the soft drug in the Netherlands to be legal. Directly after the order the Minister of Justice, Ivo Opstelten, announced that he would bring this issue to a higher court.

The Dutch Minister of Justice, Ivo Opstelten, who introduced the weedpass back in 2010.
The Dutch Minister of Justice, Ivo Opstelten, who introduced the weedpass back in 2010.

Weed pass in a nutshell

The weed pass was proposed as a measure to reduce drug tourism, and the troubles associated with it, in the border regions as early as 2010 by Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten and a coalition of city mayors from the Limburg and North Brabant provinces. The case was brought to the European Court by coffeeshop owners stating that the weed pass is against the principle of non-discrimination, as presented in one of the first paragraphs of the Dutch constitution. The EU dismissed this statement by ruling that the trade of illegal drugs is prohibited in the union. If drugs are causing problems, transcending the non-discrimination law to solve these problems is permissible. A formal way of saying that discrimination against drug users is completely legal in Europe.

This led the way for the first Rutte Cabinet – governing at that time – to amend the Opium Law that stated any drug policy should be applied throughout the entire country rather than just locally. The weed pass came into effect on May 1st 2012 starting in the southern cities (such as Maastricht) which saw drug tourism as a threat to their security. Directly after the law was implemented, the side effects long expected by those in the cannabis industry began kicking in: tourists forbidden to buy cannabis in the safe environment of a coffeeshop are directed straight into the willing arms of criminal street dealers, who – unlike the coffeeshops – sell a lot more than just cannabis.

A lengthy legal process

The coffeeshop owners at this stage still strongly oppose discriminating against people by being forced to exclude them from their stores simply because they do not live in the Netherlands. To clarify their position, some of the coffeeshops ignored the weed pass and allowed non-residents to enter their shops. One of these owners is Marc Josemans, owner of coffeeshop Easy Going and chairman of the ‘Coffeeshops of Maastricht Association’ (VOCM). The reaction of Maastricht’s mayor Onno Hoes was a hard one: he ordered the closure of all the rebellious shops for a short period of time. This in turn opened the way for a new legal process.

Marc Josemans pleading for a fair cannabis policy in the Netherlands at the Cannabis Tribunal 2011.
Marc Josemans pleading for a fair cannabis policy in the Netherlands at the Cannabis Tribunal 2011.

On April 25th 2013 the judge concluded that Mayor Hoes used measures that were disproportionally harsh in closing down the coffeeshops. Six days later the coffeeshops re-opened their doors to everyone, resident and tourist alike. Two days later, police raids took place on the offending  coffeeshops.

On the 28th of June the Dutch court found the coffeeshops guilty of ignoring the law that states only residents of the Netherlands are allowed to visit a coffeeshop. The judge blamed the owners for putting their profit above the law. According to Josemans: “This judge totally misunderstands the motivation of the coffeeshops”. He insisted on the fact that coffeeshops are being forced to discriminate. Directly after the judgment, the defendants declared their intentions to bring their case to a higher court. Josemans concluded in the local newspaper Maastricht Aktueel: “This will be the next round of a boxing game”.

A criticised measure

While coffeeshop owners and the government are still arguing about the weed pass, ironically the pass itself been scrapped. It was declared a failure in November 2012 after drug related crimes rose dramatically in the southern regions. Resident cannabis users did not want to register for the weed pass, which forced them to also do business with the street dealers. Instead, the implementation and enforcement of the law restricting coffeeshop access has been left to the local authorities.

Furthermore, within the last 6 months, criticism has arisen at every level of Dutch society. Amidst this, the mayors of Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Tilburg and Groningen have said that they would not restrict access to coffeeshops in their cities. Even the head of the Police Union ACP called the weed-pass a political measure, rather than a choice of solution.

All paid for by Dutch tax payers

Since the proposition of the bill, the legal battle between coffeeshop owners and the government has become a long and costly one – mainly for tax payers and the shop owners. Although cannabis use involves less than 10% of the adult population of the Netherlands, the costs associated with the weed pass have been assumed by 100% of tax payers.

How much will this law actually cost the Dutch citizen in total? As long as the battle continues there is no way of estimating this, but it is surely already too much for the pragmatic Dutch and their struggling economy.

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