By Marcel Michelson
AMSTERDAM, April 23 (Reuters) - It's last orders for foreigners please at Dutch coffee shops as the government on Friday decided to curb "drugs tourism" and sharpen cannabis policies amid European pressure.
A trial will start soon in the southern town of Maastricht, just across the border with both Germany and Belgium, where the sale of soft drugs to foreigners will be banned.
"We want to end all aspects of drugs tourism, the fact that people come to the Netherlands to use soft drugs or to take them home," said Justice Ministry spokesman Wim Kok.
The liberal Dutch laws on soft drugs, whose use is not allowed but condoned in a tacit acknowledgment that there are insufficient police to arrest all offenders, have been a thorn in the side to more law-and-order-oriented European countries.
In the Netherlands, cannabis smokers can openly buy and smoke the drug in hundreds of government-regulated "coffee shops".
The centre-right government wants to call an end to the hordes of foreigners, mainly youngsters, on the streets of cities like Amsterdam prowling for a joint. Countries like France abhor the return of hazy-eyed nationals by train.
The Interior Ministry will work with towns and cities on ways to better enforce existing laws against the use of cannabis, including minimum distances between the so-called coffee shop cannabis cafes and schools.
The Justice Ministry will attack drugs tourism with international police cooperation and target large-scale hemp growing as well as the "criminal involvement" of so-called "grow-shops" where people can buy seeds to grow their own pot.
The Health Ministry, for its part, will study the possible health consequences of soft drugs with a high content of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), an active compound in cannabis.
This study could lead to a reclassification of the high-THC content cannabis as a "hard drug", spokesman Bart Kuik said.
The Netherlands, where customers can order a vast array of cannabis from coffee shop menus, has reportedly seen a steep rise in THC levels in Dutch-grown cannabis called "Nederwiet" due to refined growing methods.
Some doctors say cannabis use increases the risk of depression and schizophrenia but its use has been widely tolerated by the Dutch for decades. Coffee shops are prohibited from selling "hard drugs" and are carefully monitored.
The Netherlands, the first country to legalise euthanasia, last year also became the first to make cannabis available as a prescription drug in pharmacies for chronically ill patients.
The government also decided to step up public awareness campaigns to warn against the dangers of soft drug use.
Source: Reuters AlertNet
Date: 23 April 2004