Court orders owner of cannabis cafe to pay almost euro10 million for breaking Dutch drug law

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cannabis cafe convicted of breaking Dutch drug law

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Even in this freewheeling land of tolerated soft drugs, the Checkpoint marijuana bar went too far. A Dutch judge fined it €10 million ($13.34 million) on Thursday for overstepping the rarely enforced limit on how much weed can be held in stock, in what as seen as a test case in a growing effort to rein in drug tourism.

At the height of its popularity, the euphemistically called “coffee shop” in the southern town of Terneuzen close to the Belgian border sold drugs to 3,000 people a day — many of them crossing specifically to buy marijuana and hashish.

In a sign of its acceptance by local authorities, the town even put up road signs pointing the way to the Checkpoint and built a parking lot nearby to reduce the traffic congestion in town.

The building on the banks of the Westerschelde River also housed a regular cafe and restaurant.

The Checkpoint, which has now closed, became a symbol for how the long-standing Dutch tolerance of small-scale sales of marijuana at neighborhood cafes spawned a multimillion euro (dollar) industry.

Dutch regulations allow coffee shops to hold just 500 grams (18 ounces) of cannabis on the premises. But when police raided the Checkpoint on two occasions they found 200 kilograms (440 pounds).

Those amounts of drugs turned the coffee shop into a criminal organization, judges ruled.

Soft drugs are technically illegal but tolerated, in a long-standing policy that allows authorities to carefully regulate the supply. It also allows law enforcers to keep them separate from hard drugs — whose sale on any scale remains a punishable offense.

Terneuzen’s mayor, Jan Lonink, said the verdict “underscores the importance of tightening the tolerance policy and administering it better.”

Terneuzen is not the only municipality grappling with such drug superstores, raising the ire of local residents who complain of problems caused by drug buyers.

Neighboring countries also object that the coffee shops undermine their own efforts to halt the drug trade.

Prosecutors in cities along the Dutch borders with Belgium, France and Germany are experiencing similar problems and were expected to carefully study Thursday’s verdict to see if it provides a blueprint for cracking down on their own coffee shops.

The Checkpoint’s owner, identified only as Meddy W. in line with Dutch privacy rules, and 15 of his staff were convicted by Middelburg District Court. The owner was sentenced to 16 weeks imprisonment but was released as he already spent the time in pretrial custody.

The fine was lower than the more than €28 million ($37 million) prosecutors had sought. The staff were sentenced to community service.

The court said in its written verdict that the sentences were low because prosecutors, police and local authorities in Terneuzen had allowed Checkpoint to grow unchecked. It was such an accepted part of the local community that one staff member was given a mortgage after he produced a Checkpoint pay slip as proof of his income. It also was on the books of an employment agency that advised jobless people to apply for work there.

“Checkpoint didn’t just present itself as a legal business, it also had that status in society,” the judges wrote. Staff “were proud of their work and thought Checkpoint could be a model for how a good coffee shop should work.”

Justice Ministry spokesman Wim van der Weegen declined comment on the specific case, but said the government had pledged last year to scale down the size of coffee shops. However, the Netherlands faces new elections in June, and the next government will have to deal with the issue.

Lonink said politicians should study the Checkpoint case as they consider revamping the tolerance policy. “There need to be more opportunities to rein in the size of a shop,” he said.

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