Last updated: June 13, 2011 7:34 am

An end to legal highs for tourists in Amsterdam

The Bulldog coffee shop in Amsterdam

For at least three decades, Amsterdam has been drawing tourists not only to its Rijks and Van Gogh museums, its pretty canals and poignant Anne Frank House, but also to its euphemistically named “coffee shops”.

For those unfamiliar with the cafés, their attraction is less about hot drinks, more that they are also legally allowed to sell cannabis. There are about 750 coffee shops in Holland, 223 of them in Amsterdam, and visiting them has become something of a rite of passage for young backpackers from across Europe.

But not for much longer. The Dutch government has approved measures that will effectively ban foreign tourists from visiting the shops. When the policy is introduced later this year, all coffee shop users will have to register as “members”. Membership will only be open to adult Dutch residents, and each shop will be set a maximum number of members.

“In order to tackle the nuisance and criminality associated with coffee shops and drug trafficking, the open-door policy of coffee shops will end,” said the Dutch health minister Edith Schippers and justice minister Ivo Opstelten, in a combined statement.

The move has prompted angry opposition from some MPs and those in the tourism industry. A spokesman for Eberhard van der Laan, Amsterdam’s mayor, said the ban “would turn the clock back 30 years when people bought their weed in the streets and there was no control on public safety or public health.”

Similar restrictions on foreigners were introduced in the southern Dutch city of Maastricht in 2005, prompting a legal challenge from one of the coffee shop owners, who claimed the move infringed European Union rules on the free movement of goods and services. However in December last year, the European Court of Justice backed the mayor of Maastricht, saying the restrictions were justified by the objective of combating drug tourism and the accompanying public nuisance.

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