MAASTRICHT, Netherlands (AP) — Owners and staff of three cannabis-selling cafes went on trial Wednesday in the southern Netherlands charged with selling weed to foreigners, in a case both sides of a heated drug debate in this border city hope will clarify the legality of a clampdown on so-called "coffee shops."
Maastricht is using new national legislation banning coffee shops from selling cannabis and marijuana to people who don't live in the Netherlands as a way of clamping down on what the local mayor says was a nuisance caused by hundreds of thousands of drug tourists driving into the picturesque heart of the city to stock up on weed.
The cafe owners and staff being prosecuted were arrested last month after serving foreign customers as a way of testing the legality of the new rules. A second group of owners is due in court later this month and verdicts are expected in mid-July.
Prosecutors asked judges to fine the seven suspects up to 5,000 euros (more than $6,500) and give them community service orders and short suspended prison sentences.
In an interview Tuesday in his ornate office in Maastricht's old City Hall, Mayor Onno Hoes defended the crackdown on coffee shops as an effective way of reining in problems caused by drug tourists who cross the nearby borders with Belgium and Germany to buy cannabis in officially tolerated cafes.
"Those people cause a lot of problems in the city. They park badly, they drive too fast and that sort of thing. They leave garbage on the streets and they attract illegal dealers," Hoes said.
Maastricht differs from Amsterdam — where authorities continue to allow tourists into coffee shops because of the economic boost they give the city — in that its drug tourists mostly arrive by car from neighboring countries and then leave immediately. Foreign tourists in Amsterdam more often arrive by train or plane and stick around to visit the city's museums and other attractions as well as its famed coffee shops.
Just around the corner from Hoes' office, Marc Josemans briefly raised the shutter at his coffee shop Easy Going to show off the smoking room with its tanks of tropical fish and turtles, but no customers.
As he spoke to The Associated Press, he had to turn away a customer by pointing to signs in the window — in Dutch, English, French and German — explaining that the cafe is closed because Josemans "refuses to discriminate" against foreigners. The Mississippi and Smoky coffee shops in barges moored in the Maas river that flows through Maastricht are also shuttered. Their owners were in court Wednesday; Josemans and other coffee shop owners will appear before judges later this month.
"I think it is about time that our whole toleration policy in Holland got renewed ... and I think the time is right for that and hopefully the outcome of this court case will give the first push in that direction," he said.
Coffee shop owners and city officials agree that around 2 million drug tourists visited Maastricht each year to buy drugs at its 14 coffee shops — most of which are now shuttered either voluntarily or by order of City Hall.
The drug tourist numbers plummeted when a new law came into force last year in three southern provinces banning the sale of cannabis to people not residing in the Netherlands. The law spread to the rest of the country Jan. 1 this year.
But some Maastricht residents say that banning coffee shops from selling to foreigners has simply pushed the problem onto the city's streets where dealers are now plying their trade.
A large part of the pragmatic motivation for the Netherlands' longstanding tolerance of coffee shops was to prevent smokers of cannabis and marijuana coming into contact with harder drugs like cocaine and heroin via street dealers.
Police have put more officers on the street to crack down on illegal dealing, but city police chief John Bloebaum said the crime is now dropping off again as are complaints from local residents.
Police cars and motorcycles now regularly cruise on a road alongside the River Maas near the Mississippi and Smoky coffee shops to deter illegal drug dealers plying their trade.
"The police are very active," Hoes said. "We won't tolerate dealing on the streets."