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Maastricht Mayor: Belgium, Germany need to allow regulated sale of cannabis

Belgium and Germany need to open  their own 'coffee-shops' and regulate the sale of cannabis drugs so that fewer 'drugs-tourists' will be forced to cross the border to the Netherlands, the Mayor of the Dutch city of Maastricht says.

In a one-on-one interview with EUX.TV, Gerd Leers also says he believes the regulating the sale of cannabis is a problem that should also be addressed at a European level. „The best way out of this problem is for Europe's political leaders to sit together, listen to these problems and then open their eyes for a real solution,” he said. Leers, a prominent member of the christian-democrat CDA party, made his comments in response to an angry letter fired off last week by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhoftstadt to Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, also of CDA. Verhofstadt, leader of the Flemish liberal VLD, strongly objected against the Maastricht plans to relocate some of its coffeeshops to within walking distance from the Belgian border. These plans, drawn up by Leers, were approved last week by the city council.

The Netherlands opened its first 'coffeeshop', or cannabis cafe, in 1972. It now has about 800 of them. International pressure forced the Dutch to tighten its cannabis laws back in 2004, allowing people to hold only 5 grams of cannabis instead of 30 grams. Coffeeshops now are only allowed to hold 30 grams on stock. Verhofstadt „should first carefully read my proposals and my ideas, instead of presenting them in a simplistic way to the people at a time during an election campaign,” says Leers, referring to the parliamentary elections in Belgium coming up in June. „The point is that he does not have a clear idea about what I am doing. I invite him to discuss this. We are not bringing our coffeeshops to the border... we are just trying to overcome the problems around the coffeeshops, to make them manageable.” Not only accuses Leers Verhofstadt of electioneering, he also holds the Belgian government partly responsible for the drugs-related problems in cities like Maastricht.

According to official estimates, some 1.5 million 'drugs tourists' visit the 16 coffeeshops in Maastricht every year. Most of them come from Belgium, Germany and France, which is only 2 1/2 hours away by car. „What he is doing, he is bring his clients to Maastricht , and then you should be fair. Either he bans the use of drugs completely, and fight against it. Or he should give it free and organize a way of selling these drugs to the people. But he should not complain because Maastricht is trying to get rid of all these problems that are caused by the Belgians themselves.” „They say that we are exporting our drugs problems because we have our so-called coffeeshops where you can use small amounts of drugs. But it's exactly the other way round. They are causing our problems because they are sending their clients, their inhabitants because in Belgium and Germany you can't buy it.”

Critics outside the Netherlands have said the Dutch government should solve the problems by simply closing its 'coffeeshops'. Leers says that this is not an option because then the cannabis market would go underground. „If (closing) would be the solution, I would be the first one to do it. But the point is that - and that's proven - if you say 'no' to drugs, it goes underground. It becomes illegal and then the problem would be even worse.  I think it's better to regulate and to keep your hands on it than to close your eyes. That's exactly the fight I'm fighting.” Leers said he favors a European approach to this crossborder problem. Belgium also has suggested that it should be addressed at a ministerial level, saying the Dutch approach to 'soft drugs' constitutes a violation of the Schengen Treaty on the free movement of people. Leers argues that it's not the Netherlands, but countries like Belgium who are in violation of the Schengen Treaty. „Belgium is offending the Treat of Schengen because they don't have a proper and balanced (drugs) policy. So let's sit together. Let's work this out. Be open for new solutions, because the way we are doing it now, we are losing, and the criminals will be the winners, the big winners. They earn a lot of money. Let's stop that. Let's organize it. Let's regulate it, so that we can clear it up for our people.” (