The battle has been fought on the streets, in the courtroom and in the media as authorities struggle to enforce a law aimed at ridding the Netherlands's streets of stoned tourists, with foreigners previously accounting for two-thirds of the coffee shops' clientele.
Coffee shops in Maastricht, the Netherlands, a Roman city of 120 000 conveniently wedged between the borders of Belgium and Germany, were emboldened following a court ruling on April 25 that city authorities should not have ordered the closure of one of its best-known hangouts for getting high.
The Easy Going was ordered shut last year after it was caught selling to tourists.
Members of the Maastricht Coffee Shop Association (VOCM) comprising 13 of the city's 14 coffee shops resumed selling to tourists in May.
But police raids, seizures, closure orders and prosecutions followed, and after the latest police bust at four coffee shops last weekend, all 13 VOCM member have now shut up shop.
Curbing the problem
At the root of the chaos is a controversial law introduced in May 2012 requiring coffee shops to cater only for Dutch residents in the hope of addressing the downsides of drug tourism – traffic jams, street dealing and rowdy late-night partying.
But a new, more left-wing government said in November that individual city authorities could decide whether to apply the law affecting some 650 establishments nationwide, according to their economic or social priorities.
Most Dutch cities, including those in Amsterdam, said they did not want to apply the law, while Maastricht and other southern cities said they would do so.
"Following a recent judgment, the incorrect idea has spread that coffee shops can once more sell to foreigners," the Maastricht public prosecutor said in a statement.
Eight coffee shop owners and employees are due in court on June 12 for having sold drugs to non-residents, with more prosecutions expected to follow.
Maastricht's coffee shops are waiting impatiently for the outcome of those cases, hoping for a clear legal precedent.
Last Friday, police busted four clubs – Maxcy's, the Missouri, Club 69 and Lucky Time – and arrested four staff members as well as confiscating their merchandise, Dutch news agency ANP reported.
A 14th coffee shop, which is not part of the VOCM, remained open.
Before being shut down, the VOCM had said it did not want to "discriminate" and indeed would lose too much business by complying with the law, since foreigners account for 65 percent of their clientele.
"This business of closures is a big joke, they're playing the victim," Maastricht city council spokesperson Gertjan Bos said. "The coffee shops are clever."
But VOCM head Marc Josemans said: "If governments in neighbouring countries took responsibility in terms of soft drugs, none of this would be necessary."
He declined to discuss the matter further.
Bos said that the new law had slashed the number of drug tourists coming to Maastricht from 1.5-million to under 400 000 a year.
But he admits that the number of illegal street dealers has not gone down and that they are selling more aggressively than before. The VOCM says the number of street dealers has gone up.
"We can't prove it but we think that some street dealers are employed by coffee shops themselves," to undermine the law, Bos said.
A stroll along the Maas river that snakes through the ancient city will bring the visitor in contact with hordes of street dealers touting "good weed".
As a result, the police presence has been ramped up while city authorities are now looking into moving around half of Maastricht's coffee shops outside the city.
If the oft-mooted plan goes ahead, city coffee shops will remain off limits for foreigners, while those outside of town will welcome them, effectively creating a new phenomenon: cannabis ghettoes. – AFP