Cannabis Crackdown Coffee Shop Trial a Test for Dutch Drug Policies

The Dutch have long been known for their liberal drug policies. Recently, though, cities and prosecutors have been cracking down on the so-called "coffee shops" that sell marijuana. In one potentially precedent-setting case, laws against organized crime are being used in an effort to convict a shop owner.

Law enforcement officials in the Netherlands are seeking to prosecute the owners and employees of one of the country's largest "coffee shops" in a case that could have a huge impact on drug policies in the country.

If Meddy Willemsen, the owner of the mega coffee shop Checkpoint in the city of Terneuzen, is convicted of encouraging illegal cannabis cultivation and running an organized supply chain, it could allow prosecutors to convict other coffee shop owners and workers on charges that are usually used against gangs and organized crime networks.

The trial promises to focus attention on the paradox at the heart of Dutch drug policies: Cannabis can be sold to consumers in amounts not exceeding 5 grams per person, but large-scale cultivation and bulk-buying of the drug is prohibited. Thus, cannabis and hashish are allowed to leave the coffee shop through the front door, but are not allowed to be delivered to the backdoor.

The contradictory policy has recently come under fire from all sides of the political spectrum. The conservative Christian Democrats' parliamentary leader, Pieter van Geel, recently proposed a blanket prohibition on soft drugs. His proposal came on the heels of a decision by two towns on the Belgian border to shut down their coffee shops to ward off the nuisance created by drug tourists.

By contrast, mayors from other municipalities say it is time to make provisions for the wholesale supply of soft drug retailers.

André Becker, the lawyer representing Checkpoint, says that regardless of the verdict, his client's trial will set a national precedent. "If the court accepts the prosecutor's reasoning, it would have great consequences," Beckers says.

Coffee shops are permitted to stock up to 500 grams of cannabis on their premises. Before it was forcibly closed by police in May 2008, however, Checkpoint had routinely sold 10 kilograms of weed to 3,000 customers every day. If Willemsen is convicted, the €28 million ($36.4 million) he allegedly earned between January 2006 and May 2008 could be considered criminal assets.

Peter Tak, a professor of criminal law at the University of Amsterdam, says there is a "substantial" chance that the court will rule in favor of the prosecution. According to Tak, the operation of coffee shops has always been against the letter of the law, though the businesses have long been tolerated by the Dutch government. The Dutch "opium laws" sanction the use of drugs, not their large-scale purchase or cultivation. "Actually, I am surprised that this is the first time that the authorities have tried to prosecute against coffee shops," Tak says.

Still, the court could also rule in favor of Willemsen if it reasons that the state's sanctioning and regulation of small-scale drug transactions implies an acceptance of the larger-scale cultivation and transportation of those drugs.

Even before charges were filed against Willemsen, the country had been considering making changes to its drug policies. The Netherlands' current government coalition agreed at its inception to discourage coffee shops in border areas. The politicians argued that the country's drug tolerance policies were intended for local users and not for the -- mostly Belgian and French -- drug tourists.

Previous efforts to ward off drug tourists have had mixed results. A judge struck down an attempt by the city of Maastricht to restrict drug purchases to Dutch nationals. The towns of Bergen op Zoom and Roosendaal have shut down all eight of their coffee shops to keep away rowdy visitors.

Other cities are hoping to avoid prohibition. Indeed, the municipality of Eindhoven is encouraging the opening of more coffee shops in order to prevent the arrival of mega-coffee shops like Checkpoint.

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