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The Marijuana Trade In The Euro's Birthplace

Aug 9, 2012
Originally published on August 13, 2012 7:26 am

Zoe Chace and Robert Smith are reporting from European borders this week. This is the second story in a four-part series.

Maastricht, a town in the Netherlands, is known largely for two things.

  1. The treaty that created the euro was signed there.
  2. Marijuana is legal there, and it's sold at "coffee shops" around town.

This is the story of the troubled relationship between those two claims to fame.

The single currency, along with all the other reforms that make it so easy to cross borders in the Euro Zone, led to an influx of foreign tourists coming to Maastricht to get high.

"The name of our city is synonymous with cannabis," Onno Hoes, Maastricht's mayor, says. Hoes is unhappy about this. He says that the people who come to buy marijuana violate traffic laws, litter, and don't spend money anywhere but coffee shops.

So he pushed through a bill that made it illegal to sell marijuana to non-Dutch residents.

You don't have to show a passport to cross into the Netherlands from another country. But you need a passport to walk into a coffee shop in Maastricht.

Not surprisingly, the coffee shop owners, and many of the foreign tourists, are unhappy about the new rules.

Today, "maybe 30 or 40 people come into the shop" every day, says Stephan Korsten, who owns a coffee shop. That's down from 1,500 a day before the new rules were put in place.

"Maybe I have to change it to a real coffee shop where you can drink coffee and eat some donuts or something," Korsten says.

Most of the coffee shops in the city have shut down altogether.

"Our money is allowed to go to the Spanish banks," says the owner of another shop. "But the Spanish pot smokers are not allowed to come to the Dutch coffee shops any more."

Meanwhile, the illegal market for drugs is gaining popularity. Drug dealers like are selling marijuana again--not only to foreigners, but also Dutch residents who don't want to register at the coffeeshops.

Stephan Korsten says it's like in the old days, before the European Union, when his grandparents used to smuggle butter across the border.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. The euro currency was supposed to unite Europe - Germans could travel to France without a visa; the Spanish could buy skis in Italy. But the crisis in Europe has made this much clear: Breaking down borders isn't as easy as the dreamers had hoped.

This week, NPR's Planet Money team is reporting from the borders that divide Europe. Today's stop: Belgium and Holland, two countries who trade everything, but have drawn the line at one very popular commodity.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: I'm Zoe Chace. I'm down here on the River Maas, in Maastricht, Netherlands; where people, when they have a little time off - some time to hang out - they like to get high...


CHACE: this guy.

JOON DEFRIES: My name is Joon Defries(ph). Right now, I'm smoking a joint. (LAUGHTER)

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: You know, Zoe, they like the marijuana on this side of the border, too. I'm Robert Smith, here in Liege, Belgium. And the problem is, it's not legal in Belgium to smoke marijuana. And so on weekends and evenings, Belgians used to stream across the border into Maastricht, looking to get high in the city's coffee shops.

MAYOR ONNO HOES: The name of our city is synonym for cannabis.

CHACE: Onno Hoes is the mayor of Maastricht. For most people, the city is known as the place the European Union was born. The document that everyone signed 20 years ago, that created the euro - it's called the Maastricht Treaty. But having its name on the founding document had this unexpected consequence. All the news coverage from that time just happened to mention all these coffee shops in the city, where it was legal to buy pot.

SMITH: So once everyone had the same money and the borders were open, European dreamers returned to Maastricht, to get high.

HOES: But I don't like people who especially come in - who only come in to buy cannabis.

CHACE: The mayor says pot smokers don't go to the museums...

HOES: There's a lot of traffic problems...

CHACE: ...litter.

HOES: ...a lot of illegal parking.

SMITH: And so last May, the smokers here in Belgium were in for a little surprise when they crossed the border and stopped at the first coffee shop over the bridge, into the city. Here, let me show you. Like most of the cannabis shops here, it has a cool American name. It's called Easy Going.


SMITH: There's nobody here. They've pulled the curtains and in four languages, they have the sign up. "Temporarily Closed."

CHACE: The mayor of Maastricht had pushed through this new law that said foreigners were no longer allowed to enter the coffee shops. And a bunch of coffee shops closed, in protest. They thought it was ridiculous; you didn't have to show a passport at the international border, but you now had to show a passport at the entrance to the cannabis shops.

SMITH: There was an economic hit, too. Marc Josemans, owner of the Easy Going shop, says that foreigners accounted for 93 percent of his customers. He says with all the talk of one Europe, of bailing each other out of the financial crisis, Holland was killing the dream.

MARC JOSEMANS: We have to help Spanish banks, with surviving; and Greece banks; and so on and so on. But the funny thing is that only our money is allowed to go to the Spanish banks. But the Spanish pot smokers are not allowed to come to the Dutch coffee shops anymore.

CHACE: Only a few coffee shops are managing to stay open. This coffee shop is called The Mississippi. It's on an old barge in the river. There's a passport control station at the front, so the foreigners don't come anymore. Dutch people have to put their name on an official list, so most of them don't show up, either. The ones that do, are not happy.

STEPHAN KORSTEN: In English, bull (BLEEP).

CHACE: The owner sits at one of the tables and sulks.

KORSTEN: So in the day, maybe 30, 40 people come inside the shops. And before, it used to be 1,500 a day. Maybe I have to change it to real a coffee shop, where you can drink coffee and eat some (LAUGHTER) - some doughnuts or something. (LAUGHTER)

CHACE: Change it to a Starbucks.

KORSTEN: I'll change it to a Starbucks, maybe. I thought about this. Really, really.

CHACE: Stephan Korsten says this rolls back the clock to the days before the euro, when his grandparents used to smuggle butter across the same river.Open borders were supposed to fix all this. Now look at it. Up at the counter, they used to have the weed just sitting out - buffet style - for customers to choose. These days he gets so little traffic, the pot has to be kept in Tupperware containers so it doesn't dry out. All the names are written in Sharpie, on top; like Buddha...

KORSTEN: This is lemon.

CHACE: ...Nepal. Let me see - whoa.

KORSTEN: Whoa, hashish.

CHACE: Yeah.

SMITH: Sorry rest of Europe, none for you. Of course, Belgians can still come over the border - euros in hand - looking for drugs. They just have to go to a source that may seem more familiar to those of you in the United States: your friendly neighborhood drug dealer.

"GANJA BOY": Scrrrrbt! Ganja Boys in the building. Holland - Maastricht - getting their paper. You know what I say? Scrrrrbt! Bang.

SMITH: You will know "Ganja Boy" when you see him. He's sprawled back on a park bench by the river, grinning his head off.

GANJA BOY: Bee-yoo! Beaucoup, beaucoup, beaucoup money - big money. (LAUGHTER)

SMITH: I noticed your phone keeps ringing.

GANJA BOY: Yes. Yes to money.


GANJA BOY: Scrrrrbt! Bang.

CHACE: And so Europe learns an old lesson. If you put up barriers, someone will find a way around them - and they'll pocket the money. Ganja Boy doesn't pay the taxes those coffee shops had to pay, and he provides the same service.

GANJA BOY: I have Dutch people that buy, people from other countries; everyone. Grandmas - yes. Grandmas! Yes! Uh-huh. They do that, too.

SMITH: Back across the border in Belgium, a lot of smokers aren't even bothering with Maastricht anymore. I ran into Rashid Moulah(ph) in the center of town. And I asked him, where you find your weed now?

RASHID MOULAH: The better thing to do, is to use your nose inside the cafes...

SMITH: So - to smell for marijuana in cafes ...

MOULAH: Yes...

SMITH: ...around here.

MOULAH: ...and discotheque. There is a lot of discotheque - smell.

SMITH: He also says there are taxis you can call, that will bring you pot. No need to drive all the way to the Netherlands, when it can come right to you.

Robert Smith in Liege, Belgium.

CHACE: And I'm Zoe Chace, chilling down by the river, Maastricht, Netherlands.

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