|Photo: Rien Zilvold|
|One Dutch town has banned foreigners from its cannabis-vending coffee shops. Does that violate the principles of the European Union? A court will soon decide.|
A Dutch city has banned “foreigners” from its cannabis selling coffee shops. A European court will now decide whether such a ban is legal.
The struggle of Dutch border towns against marijuana tourism hangs in the balance as the European Court of Justice (ECJ) gets ready to make a ruling regarding one of the most extreme measures employed in the battle so far, reports Paul van der Steen at NRC Handelsblad.
The ECJ heard arguments Thursday in Josemans v. Maastricht, a case which dates back to 2006 when police found two foreign nationals on the premises of Easy Going, a “coffee shop” of the kind that sells cannabis.
|Don’t bother trying to buy cannabis at the Easy Going coffee shop — unless you’re Dutch.|
Maastricht is the largest city in the far south of the Netherlands, close to the Belgian border and a 30-minute drive from Germany. The Easy Going coffee shop there is owned by Marc Josemans, also the chairman of an association of the city’s coffee shop proprietors.
Police discovered the two foreigners in Easy Going after a city law had come into effect which prohibits the presence of foreign nationals in local coffee shops. The case represents the only time law enforcement has acted on the new rule so far, because the city is awaiting the outcome of this test case.
The case has made its way up to the Council of State, the highest Dutch court, which has in turn requested the advice of the ECJ before it makes a ruling. The Council of State has asked the European court whether treating foreigners differently than local cannabis consumers isn’t a violation of the “one Europe” principles underlying the European Union’s internal market.
In an unusual legal twist, the case seems to have led to a conflict between the EU’s laws governing free trade on the continent and Dutch marijuana policy. For decades, the Netherlands has effectively decriminalized, but not legalized, the use of cannabis.
The sale of pot through coffee shops is strictly regulated in the Netherlands. Advertising is forbidden, as are sales to minors.
The European Union, on the other hand, is supposed to guarantee a “free, unified market of goods and services” among its members. Whether this should apply to the quasi-legal status of the Dutch cannabis industry is the question now being debated.
The EU’s policy should apply to cannabis, according to André Beckers, Joseman’s lawyer. Beckers said that cannabis is an economic commodity like another other.
Beckers has shown that Easy Going, one of 14 coffee shops in Maastricht, expects to see 10 million euros worth of cannabis this year, in addition to the 500,000 euros it expects to make from “normal” business activities like selling coffee.
Because of the technically illegal nature of the cannabis trade, Easy Going is under no obligation to pay sales tax on the marijuana it sells, but the coffee shop is required to pay income tax, employee benefits, corporate tax and value added tax on its legal revenues.
The lawyer also pointed to a recent study which found cannabis-vending coffee shops indirectly contribute about 140 million euros and 1,370 jobs to the Dutch economy.
The city of Maastricht’s lawyer, along with the representative of the Netherlands, argued that the exclusion of foreigners from coffee shops is not merely a matter of Dutch self interest, but also important for the “maintenance of public order” in other EU member states.
“The Netherlands is subject to international pressure in this respect,” said Corina Wissels, representing the Dutch state.
The ban on foreigners in the coffee shops would have a huge effect, especially in border towns such as Maastricht. About 70 percent of the two million people who visit one of Maastricht’s coffee shops each year are from foreign countries, mostly Germany, France and Belgium.
The Belgian representative asked the European court to consider the “nuisance” caused by stoned French cannabis users traveling through Belgium, “drug runners,” and Belgian users returning home high.
An earlier ruling by the ECJ found that a member state could not let its own residents go about their business unhindered while impeding other EU nationals from doing the same. The ruling was made in a case concerning Polish prostitutes working in the Netherlands.
“The European Commission does not oppose a test case in itself,” said Hubert van der Vliet, a representative of the EC. “But why haven’t less far-reaching measures been tried first, such as a customer-card system, reducing the maximum amount available to single customers (from five to three grams for instance) or requiring customers to consume purchased wares on the spot?”
The judges expressed surprise at Dutch drug policy. They asked what the coffee shop’s permits are for, exactly, if the sale of cannabis is illegal in the Netherlands. The court also wondered who , exactly, supplies the marijuana to the coffee shops.
The ECJ has declined to specify a date for its ruling, but it has promised to process the case quickly. A definitive ruling by the Dutch Council of State is expected by the end of this year.
The case will play a large role in the evolution of Dutch cannabis policy.