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MAASTRICHT, The Netherlands — Watched over by a content Mona Lisa with a large reefer between her lips, clients of the Smoky Boat offer a cozy picture of peace, playing backgammon and sipping juice between puffs from cigarettes laced with hashish or marijuana. 



                                Pubdate: Sun, 20 Aug 2006
                                    New York Times (NY)

The tranquility, however, could come to an abrupt end.  Marc Josemans, the owner of the Smoky Boat, a cannabis cafe on a docked river barge here in Maastricht, said he might soon be packing up his menu of pungent "Nirvana Special," "Silver Haze" and "Super Skunk."


The mayor wants to move most of the city’s 16 licensed cannabis cafes to the edge of town, preferably close to the border. 

Maastricht, a medieval town on the Meuse River in the hilly south of the Netherlands, has long cherished its rare position, with Belgium and Germany just a few miles away, giving the people a casual ease with foreign languages, food and visitors. 

But as the southernmost point of the nation with Europe’s most lenient soft-drug laws, Maastricht has also turned into a hub for foreign smokers and dealers.  The police say drug tourists, estimated at more than a million per year, come to shop from neighboring countries, some as far away as France and Switzerland. 

The multimillion-dollar trade has spawned a supply chain of illicit growers and underground traders. 

It was not meant to be this way. 

"People who come from far away don’t just come for the five grams you can buy legally over the counter," said Piet Tans, a police spokesman.  "They think pounds and kilos; they go to dealers who operate in the shadows."

The police regularly destroy indoor nurseries, often detected because of the high electricity bills run up by the grow lights, he said.  But new nurseries, hidden in attics and basements, keep springing up to feed the international clientele.  Mr.  Tans said the flourishing drug tourism had also attracted pushers of hard drugs from Amsterdam, who often harass people on the streets. 

Residents complain of traffic problems, petty crime, loitering and public urinating.  There have been shoot-outs between Balkan gangs.  Maastricht’s small police force says it cannot cope and is already spending one-third of its time on drug-related problems. 

The mayor, Gerd Leers, and the town council have been searching for answers.  Forbidding sales to nonresidents would likely violate European anti-discrimination rules, and closing the cannabis cafes is not the solution either, he said.  "The trade will just go underground because demand will not disappear."

So he has drawn up a scheme to move at least half the cafes away from the charming narrow downtown streets and resettle them along the highways near the borders. 

He has met with mayors from a dozen nearby Belgian and German towns and villages, explaining his ideas and pleading for cross-border solidarity and greater collaboration.  Some have signed a cooperation plan, but others have protested. 

Huub Broers, mayor of the nearby Belgian town of Voeren, is one who objected to getting the new outlets on his doorstep. 

The Dutch brought on the problem themselves, he said: if there were no sales in Maastricht, the French and the Belgians would not go there to stock up. 

But Mayor Leers argues that Maastricht has merely borne the brunt of a general problem the mayors would otherwise find at home. 

Several other Dutch border cities intend to relocate their cannabis outlets.  "We have already moved two cafes close to the frontier with Germany, where most clients come from," said Rick van Druten, a town official in Venlo. 

"They buy and turn around," he added.  "It solved a lot of congestion and loitering."

The problem in Maastricht and other border towns echoes a broader tension that has grown since The Netherlands began allowing the regulated sale of marijuana and hashish in 1976. 

As national borders lost their role in Europe’s common market, many domestic laws, including drug policies, have remained far apart.  The Dutch have lobbied for their neighbors to follow them, while others, including France, want the Dutch to abolish their stand. 

In practice, holding a small cache of drugs is rarely punished in Western Europe, but the Dutch have been clearer about setting rules: the cannabis cafes can sell five grams per person of marijuana or hashish.  Clients younger than 18, hard drugs and alcohol are forbidden.  In Maastricht, half of the original 32 cafes have been shut down because of violations. 

Despite such clear rules, another basic problem lingers: the cafes are licensed to sell the drugs, but it is illegal to produce or transport their supplies. 

"It’s a crazy situation," said Mr.  Josemans, who owns another cafe besides the Smoky Boat and who is head of the local cannabis cafe owners’ association.  "Every day I’m obliged to commit crimes because I have to stock up illegally.  But at the same time I pay taxes on the sales."

"It’s all very hypocritical," he said.  "So I have delivery boys going back and forth, because I can keep only 500 grams in stock.  A liquor store can keep a thousand liters and has quality control."

Mayor Leers, who says at heart he is a prohibitionist, and Mr.  Josemans have at least this in common: both believe that as long as people can sell, they should be allowed to cultivate the plants.  "Illegal growers use pesticides and fertilizer and make smoking more dangerous," Mr.  Josemans said. 

The mayor has asked the government to allow Maastricht to experiment with supervised, legal plantations to cut out the criminal groups.  In speeches and articles, he has railed against the present policy.  "Either you close this back door or you regulate it," he argued in Parliament.  "It’s like telling a baker that he can sell bread but he is not allowed to buy flour."

The impending plan to move out of town has been debated by the owners of other cafes, like the Blue Dream, Slow Motion and Wall Street; some of them see new opportunity. 

One has proposed buying the former customs office on the Dutch-Belgian border, a plan appreciated for its incongruity. 

Some old-timers see only risks in leaving the intimate atmosphere of the inner city. 

The owners of the paraphernalia shops — the downtown boutiques that sell water pipes, candles, rolling paper and other drug accessories – — are said to be worried. 

Mr.  Josemans said he would be one of the first to open an outlet along the highway near Belgium.  "I’ve been in this trade for 25 years, and I’ll do it for a while longer," he said.  "I won’t recommend cannabis as a way of life, but it’s O.K.  for recreation."

And, at least for now, it is still good for business.  His new highway cafe will provide a reading room, snacks, fresh juice and an Internet corner. 

"I’ll take the risk," he said.  "I’m willing to modernize."

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