By driving the soft drugs trade underground, the Dutch town of Maastricht has triggered a crime wave. PublicServiceEurope.com analyses the effects of the controversial 'weed pass' law

Maastricht - formerly a mecca for drug tourists from across western Europe - has called for police reinforcements to handle "aggressive" street pushers, who have taken over almost all trade in marijuana and cannabis since authorities introduced tighter controls on legal outlets. The Dutch town's Mayor Onno Hoes wants to double the number of dedicated police officers in order to control the black market, which has benefited from the region's draconian "weed pass" law.

Hoes also wants one of the key elements of the weed pass system dropped - the requirement that all soft drug consumers become registered members of 'coffee shop clubs' - after finding that the vast majority of consumers refused to apply. Separate rules requiring joint smokers to prove they are local residents are set to stay, however. The weed pass came into effect in Maastricht, a border town close to both Belgium and Germany, on May 1. It killed off an international trade that had thrived for decades.

"The market has become smaller and smaller for drug runners," says Gertjan Bos, Hoes' spokesman. "So they have become very aggressive on the street. They are much more visible now and they are causing more trouble. That's why mayor Hoes has called for more police." Local users prefer to buy from illegal drug dealers - some of whom offer 'weed-cab' services over the internet - rather than join the official coffee shop clubs, Bos admits to PublicServiceEurope.com. "The students and other users dare not join for privacy reasons," he says. Many fear that by signing up for membership, they could restrict their ability to apply for sensitive jobs - such as those in government - at a later date.

Bos, however, denies claims there has been an explosion in illegal drug dealers since authorities effectively forced much of the industry to go underground. "There has been no increase and no decrease in the number of drug runners and drug dealers," he says. "The weed pass has been a success as 1.5 million people who used to come from abroad are not coming anymore". Neither have local businesses been hit by the decline in tourists, according to Bos, other than burger bars. "The fast food restaurants around the old market said they saw a decline in profits of 15 per cent when the new measures were introduced, but since then they say that part of their profits have come back. We haven't seen any other decrease in profits from other businesses". Around half of the town's 14 coffee shops remain closed.

Local press coverage suggests this official picture is far from complete, though. According to a series of articles in Limburger, a local newspaper, the illegal street trade has boomed since May 1. Drug dealers, some of them children and many of them from Eastern Europe and North Africa, now fight for control of the 120,000-population city. Eight of 17 local authorities that took part in a survey said they had witnessed an increase in drug-related problems since the weed pass came into force, the Limburger reported. And the true extent of the problem could well have gone unreported given that relations between residents and the police in some of the affected neighbourhoods are reportedly not good. Those who do not trust the police are unlikely to report crimes, the newspaper suggested.

"Everything we predicted has come true," says Marc Josemans, head of the association of Maastricht coffee shop owners. "Some of the dealers on the street now are as young as 14, some are as old as 65," he tells this website. "They are making good profits". Maastricht has become a "ghost town" since May, says Josemans. "I will admit there are a lot more parking spaces available, but there have been a lot of negative side effects. There is no tourism anymore. We have committed economic suicide." Josemans, whose Easy Going coffee shop was one of the best known in Maastricht, defied the law and served non-residents after the weed pass came into effect, a transgression that led to a one-month closure. He has since refused to open up again until his latest court challenge against the "discriminatory" law reaches a conclusion. A verdict is expected early next year.

The political scene elsewhere in the Netherlands, meanwhile, is changing. Towns in the north of the country are lobbying against the weed pass - which in theory comes into force nationwide in 2013. Politicians in the newly elected Dutch government are said to be less enthusiastic than their predecessors about the reforms. Given that the weed pass was introduced to control what Maastricht's mayor called the "nuisance" of foreign drug tourists, it can hardly be labelled a success. By driving the trade underground the local authorities have exchanged a foreign-made nuisance for a home-grown boom in criminality - to the extent that the mayor now wants to row back on his initiative. Even those opposed to soft drugs have come to admit that legalised, controlled use has its advantages.

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