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Originally published Friday, April 27, 2012 at 10:35 PM

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Dutch cannabis cafes fail to stop ban on sales to 'pot tourists'

A Dutch court Friday upheld a law that would prevent foreigners from buying marijuana and hashish in coffee shops, potentially ending decades of "pot tourism" for which Amsterdam and other cities became universally known.

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A group of coffee shops had challenged the government plan, launched after southern cit... MORE
Truly an odd move by the Dutch. While crime is on the rise in the Netherlands... MORE
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AMSTERDAM — A Dutch court Friday upheld a law that would prevent foreigners from buying marijuana and hashish in coffee shops, potentially ending decades of "pot tourism" for which this and other cities became universally known.

A group of coffee shops had challenged the government plan, launched after southern cities complained of increased levels of drug-related crime. The decision means coffee shops in the south must stop selling cannabis to foreigners by Tuesday.

A so-called "weed pass" is allowed for Dutch citizens and permanent residents. The plan would roll out to other cities, including the popular tourist center of Amsterdam, by next year.

The Netherlands is moving toward tighter controls on its renowned liberal policy on the sale of marijuana even as the United States and other countries are engaging in increasingly heated debates over the legalization of "soft drugs."

Lawyers for the Netherlands' cannabis cafes — which number more than 650 nationwide, including 214 in Amsterdam — argued that forbidding sales to foreigners only was illegal under national anti-discrimination laws. They vowed to appeal the court decision.

A judge in The Hague ruled the law was legal because of increased criminality linked to the Dutch drug trade. The Dutch government said there would be no exceptions to the new rules.

Amsterdam argues that the reasons cannabis coffee shops were first tolerated decades ago are still relevant — they are well-regulated havens where people can buy soft drugs without coming into contact with dealers of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Coffee shops also are banned from serving alcohol and from selling drugs to people younger than 18.

For many Amsterdam tourists, smoking cannabis in a canal-side coffee shop ranks high on their to-do lists, along with visiting such cultural highlights as the Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank House. City spokeswoman Tahira Limon said 4 million to 5 million tourists visit the city each year and about 23 percent say they visit a coffee shop.

Worried tourism will take a hit, Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan hopes to hammer out a compromise with the national government, which relies on municipalities and local police to enforce drug policies.

But the conservative government collapsed this week, and new elections are scheduled for September. It's unclear whether the new administration would keep the new cannabis policy in place.

"We have tourists that just want to have a smoke," said Michael Velig, 56, owner of the 420 Café in the city's infamous red-light district and chairman of the Dutch Union of Cannabis Retailers. "If they're not going to get it, they will ask Dutch people who actually have a pass for the coffee shop to buy it. Or they fall in hands of the illegal street sellers."

Relaxing outside The Bulldog, a coffee shop in Amsterdam's Leidseplein Square, Gavin Harrison of Northern Ireland said he hoped the city wouldn't change.

"I think it's going to be a shame for Amsterdam," Harrison said. "I think it's going to lose a lot of tourists."

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