The Cabinet wants to introduce a ‘grass pass’ to reduce the number of drugs tourists. According to Minister Ivo Opstelten, that should even be fast-tracked in Brabant because of a number of recent violent drugs-related incidents. That’s strange reasoning, thinks Jan Brouwer, professor of Legal Methods at the University of Groningen. ‘The “grass pass” is intended to keep foreigners out of coffee shops. The Minister is now suddenly behaving as if the pass will help fight crime.’
The introduction of the ‘grass pass’ will turn coffee shops into closed clubs, only accessible to registered members with a pass. The country of residence principle would ban people living across the border from becoming members. According to Brouwer, it is unclear why the Cabinet is in favour of introducing the ‘grass pass’. ‘In the border cities, coffee shop-related problems are completely different than in Amsterdam, for example. In all cases, criminologists do not expect crime to decline as a result of the “grass pass”’.
The opposite is much more likely to happen, thinks Brouwer. ‘There is a very realistic chance that the trade will go underground.’ That is also the Amsterdam mayor’s argument. Eberhard van der Laan has serious doubts about the value of introducing the pass. According to him a ‘grass pass’ would lead to illegal resale and street trading, resulting in an increase in public nuisance, crime and health risks.
The ‘grass pass’ should be a boon to the border municipalities and the larger cities. However, 14 of the 22 municipalities involved have come out against the pass. That fact alone, according to Brouwer, is reason enough to doubt the implementability, because the basis for a ‘sales ban’ to foreigners will have to be set out in a local byelaw.
Brouwer doubts whether the municipalities will want or be able to do without the income. ‘Drugs tourism generates about EUR 10 billion. And that’s leaving aside the trade in soft drugs itself, which has an annual turnover of between EUR 1.5 and 2 billion. Those are significant sums, but apparently they are the wrong sort of tourist’, according to Brouwer. Huge economic interests are tied up in the trade in soft drugs in Amsterdam. ‘Tourists don’t only go there for the coffee shops. Precisely because they also do other things, they are an important source of revenue. The introduction of a “grass pass” will definitely cut away at that.’
There’s also the question of whether the ‘grass pass’ is legally feasible, in Brouwer’s opinion. According to the European Court of Justice, foreigners may be turned away to counteract drugs tourism. That’s a logical decision, thinks Brouwer. ‘After all, it’s about goods that are banned in the rest of Europe.’ But according to the Dutch constitution, foreign visitors may not be banned from coffee shops. Everyone in the Netherlands must be treated equally.
‘We can only differentiate if there is an objective and reasonable legal justification for doing so. The disturbance of the peace that’s now being put forward is not such a ground’, according to Brouwer. ‘That assumes that it’s only foreigners who are disturbing the peace around coffee shops. Where this does happen, however, it’s just as often the Dutch.’
Together with students of Law and IT, Brouwer has developed an alternative for the ‘grass pass’. ‘The “grass pass” is intended to stem the tide of drugs tourists. We examined how we could do that without discriminating against foreigners. We eventually came up with a “grass credit card”, a pass that would be available from a central point of issue with a limit of, for example, twenty euros a day’, explains Brouwer.
‘That would make a trip across the border just to buy soft drugs a lot less interesting. An added advantage would be that you would no longer have to pay cash in coffee shops and you’d have a better idea of the cash flows. If we also start to check the active ingredients in the soft drugs, we’d be taking two steps in the right direction. Over the course of time, soft drugs have got much more powerful.’
A parallel with alcohol sales could be made to protect the youth. ‘If you linked an age limit to the “grass credit card”, you’d be able to ensure that people under a certain age would not be able to buy cannabis with an active ingredient above a certain percentage. If we don’t want to tackle the “back-door problem”, we should at least make sure that the “front-door problem” is properly regulated.’ [Back-door problem: coffee shop owners are allowed to sell cannabis but not buy it in, although this trade is tolerated in the Netherlands.]
Jan Brouwer (Oosterbeek, 1951) studied Law and History at the University of Groningen. His is professor of General Law Studies at the University of Groningen and director of the Centre for Public Order and Security.
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