“There is no way this will hold up,” said John Deckers, a spokesman for the Maastricht coffee shop owners’ association. “It is discrimination against other European Union citizens.”
If Maastricht gets its way, many other Dutch municipalities will doubtless follow. Last year, two small Dutch towns, Rosendal and Bergen op Zoom, decided to close all their coffee shops after surveys showed that most of their customers were foreigners.
The situation has not made for good neighborly feelings. Many residents of border towns criticize Belgium, France and Germany for tolerating recreational drug use but banning the sale of drugs. “They don’t punish small buyers,” said Cyrille Fijnaut, a professor at the University of Tilburg law school. “But they also don’t have their own coffee shops, so that leaves us as the suppliers. Our policy has been abused, misused, totally perverted.”
As business has boomed, many of the Dutch coffee shops — dingy, hippie establishments in the ’80s and ’90s with a few plastic tubs of marijuana on the shelves — have become slick shops serving freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee in fine china.
The Easy Going Coffee Shop has a computer console at the door where identification documents proving that customers are 18 or older are scanned and recorded. Tiny pictures on driver’s licenses are blown up to life-size on a screen, so guards can get a good look at them. Behind the teller windows, workers still cut the hashish with a big kitchen knife, but all sales are recorded on computerized cash registers.
Mr. Bot’s ruling last month is only an early step in determining whether Maastricht can enforce a Dutch-only policy. A final ruling by the full court is expected by the end of the year.
But Mr. Bot’s finding, a veritable tirade on the evils of drugs, surprised many legal scholars, who expected the European Union’s open market rules to trump any public order arguments, as they have in other cases. Sweden, for instance, which has a long history of struggling with alcohol abuse, was obliged to take down most of its anti-alcohol laws restricting store hours and sales, as they were seen as impinging on free trade.
Polls show that a majority of the Dutch still believe that the coffee shops should exist. But the Netherlands once had 1,500 of them; now, there are about 700. And every year, the numbers decline, according to Nicole Maalste, a professor at the University of Tilburg who has written a book on the subject. “Slowly, slowly they are being closed down by inventing new rules, and new rules,” Ms. Maalste said.
Much of the criminality associated with the coffee shops, experts say, revolves around what people here call the “back door” problem. The government regulates what goes on in coffee shops. But it has never legalized or regulated how the stores get the drugs they sell — an issue that states in the United States that have legalized medical marijuana are just beginning to grapple with.
In recent years, the tremendous volume of sales created by foreigners has prompted an industry of cultivating cannabis and other drugs within the Netherlands — some estimate that it is now a $2 billion a year business — much of it tangled in organized crime and money laundering operations, experts say.
Advocates for legalized sales and coffee shop owners argue that trying to restrict foreigners will only encourage them to buy illegally in the streets. They also say that coffee shops have other selling points: they pay 450 million euros a year in taxes and provide thousands of jobs.
Mr. Deckers, the shop association spokesman, said coffee shop owners were so skeptical that the European Union would allow restrictions on sales based on nationality that they encouraged the city to get a ruling on the subject. They doubt Mr. Bot’s arguments will stand. “We know he is wrong,” Mr. Deckers said.