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Good hygiene for bad habits

Dutch coffee shops offering customers a repast of marijuana and hash find themselves victim to a ban on public smoking.

By Associated Press,
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 29, 2003

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - Under a new ban on smoking in public places, Dutch coffee shops will be allowed to sell marijuana cigarettes, but their customers will have to go outside to smoke them.

To the chagrin of the owners of the country's popular smoking establishments, national health guidelines due to take effect in January seem to be inadvertently striking the heart of the liberal Dutch drugs policy.

The law targeted tobacco, not marijuana. The ban on smoking in public places met fierce resistance from eating and drinking establishments, which argued the prohibition would result in the loss of 50,000 jobs and $1.5-billion in revenues annually.

The industry - as well as coffee shops that sell marijuana - has been granted a one-year extension until January 2005.

Opponents say the ban will drive smoking customers at regular bars and cafes - about one in three of the Dutch smoke tobacco - across the borders to Germany and Belgium, where it would still be allowed.

The first coffee shop selling marijuana and hashish opened in the Netherlands in 1972, and they now number more than 800 countrywide. Growers and sellers compete in annual taste-testing competitions in Amsterdam, where millions of tourists a year sample the vast varieties advertised on menus.

In addition to selling small quantities of what the Dutch call "soft-drugs," many coffee shops also offer patrons comfortable couches, fresh fruit juices and board games. Alcohol is generally forbidden.

Reactions in Dutch coffee shops ranged from utter amazement to concern about what will happen to the 3-decade-old tradition in Amsterdam of social marijuana smoking.

"They've got to be out of their minds," Annemiek van Royan, a regular at the Kashmir Lounge coffee shop in West Amsterdam, said with a laugh.

Lighting up a joint of Dutch "skunk weed," she said she comes every day to hang out and talk with other visitors who can lean back on colorful embroidered cushions and puff away.

"I bought a joint for now and a little more for later at home. The best part is coming here to relax. It makes my day," she said, asking the dealer jokingly if he was going to start selling hash cake.

"Cake is so strong, it's too dangerous. People never know how much to eat," said Johan de Vries, the bartender at the Kashmir Lounge. He suggested building a heated outdoor terrace to get around the new law.

Health Ministry spokesman Bas Kuik said the law was not intended to target coffee shops, and - as in all public areas - they could have designated smoking areas.

The sale of marijuana is officially illegal, but its use has been decriminalized. Authorities allow the coffee shops to operate under strict guidelines as a way of exerting some control over behavior that they argue would happen anyway.

Studies show that use of such drugs is no greater in the Netherlands than in countries where it is banned.

Even the head of the antismoking lobby Clean Air Now, Willem van den Oetelaar, conceded that banning marijuana smoking in coffee shops had not been the intended purpose of the campaign to stop public smoking. But he still backed the move.

"It's not our priority, but it is a good thing," he said.

Van den Oetelaar said the organization's hotline had received more than 2,000 complaints about smoking in public places since October - but not one complaint about a coffee shop.

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