Long famous for “coffee shops” where joints and cappuccinos share the menu, the Netherlands’ famed tolerance for drugs could be going up in smoke.
A judge on Friday upheld a government plan to ban non-Dutch residents from buying cannabis by introducing a “weed pass” available only to residents.
The regulation reins in one of the best known symbols of the country’s reputation of tolerance.
For many tourists visiting Amsterdam, smoking a joint in a canalside coffee shop ranks alongside visiting the Van Gogh Museum on their must-do list.
Friday’s ruling by a judge at The Hague district court clears the way for the weed pass to be introduced in southern provinces on 1 May.
The new law, which will turn coffee shops into private clubs with membership open only to Dutch residents and limited to 2,000 per shop – will roll out in the rest of the country, including Amsterdam, next year.
Amsterdam mayor Eberhard van der Laan is hoping to hammer out a compromise with the national government.
Coffee shops are also resisting the change. Maurice Veldman, a lawyer representing owners, said he would file an appeal against the ruling.
The most recent figures from the government say the country has more than 650 coffee shops, 214 of them in Amsterdam.
The number has been steadily declining with the imposition of tougher regulations, such as closing shops close to schools.
But the new membership rules are the most significant move in many years.
The government argues that it needs to crack down on so-called “drug tourists” – effectively couriers who drive over the border from neighbouring Belgium and Germany to buy large amounts of cannabis, which they resell at home.
They are said to cause traffic and public order problems in towns along the Dutch border.
Such issues do not exist in Amsterdam, where most tourists walk or ride bikes and buy drugs purely for their own consumption.
City spokeswoman Tahira Limon said the weed pass “doesn’t solve any problems we have here and it could create new problems”.
She said four to five million tourists visit Amsterdam each year and about 23% say they visit a coffee shop during their stay.
Amsterdam argues that the reasons coffee shops were first tolerated decades ago are still relevant – they are well-regulated havens where people can buy soft drugs without coming into contact with dealers of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
Coffee shops cannot serve alcohol or sell drugs to people under 18.
The government said on Friday that there would be no exceptions to the new rules. “Amsterdam will also have to enforce this policy,” said Job van de Sande, a spokesman for the ministry of security and justice.
The conservative Dutch government said it wants the shops to revert to what they were originally intended to be: small local stores selling to local people.
However, the Dutch government collapsed this week and new elections are scheduled for September. It is unclear whether the new administration will keep the new measures in place.
Veldman called Friday’s court ruling a political judgment. He said: “The judge completely fails to answer the principal question: Can you discriminate against foreigners when there is no public order issue at stake?”
Coffee shop owners in the southern city of Maastricht have said they plan to disregard the new measures, forcing the government to prosecute one of them in a test case.