To most of the outside world, it is known as the dull Dutch market town
where the treaty that created the European Union was signed in 1992.
Small wonder then, that the bulk of Maastricht's foreign visitors come
not for the history, but for the abundance of Amsterdam-style 'coffee
shops' selling marijuana.
Now, however, fed up at the growing numbers of drug tourists, Maastricht
plans to move up to half of the offending cafes to the Belgian border -
a scheme that has tested the spirit of European integration to its limit.
For the town's mayor, Gerd Leers, the move will simply relocate the
cafes safely out of Maastricht and closer to their main market, which
locals say is overwhelmingly young Belgians anyway.
But officials in Belgium, where cannabis remains illegal, say the plan
will completely derail their own zero-tolerance policy on drugs. Because
both countries are signatories to the EU's Schengen free movement
agreement, the national boundary exists nowadays only on maps, which
means that Belgian towns such as Lanaken, right on the border, may end
up looking as if they have their own coffee shop.
'I have a good understanding with Mayor Leers, except when it comes to
soft drugs,' Lanaken's mayor, Alex Vangronsveld, complained last week.
'We in Lanaken maintain a zero-tolerance policy. The dispersal plan is
not acceptable to us, as Maastricht already has 4,500 drug tourists a day.'
Dutch police, however, back Mr Leers. By moving some of Maastricht's 16
coffee shops to within a few yards of Belgium, they hope to export not
just the cannabis trade but also its undesired sidekick, illegal hard drugs.
'Their fears are legitimate,' said Peter Tans, the police spokesman for
south Limburg, the Dutch region that includes Maastricht. 'Experience
has shown that when you move the coffee shop the problem moves, too, and
crime levels where the coffee shop used to be drop dramatically. But we
say to the Belgians: 'These are your customers, keep them in your country'.'
A date for the move has not been set and some coffee shop managers
believe the plan might never be activated. A previous project by Mr
Leers to ban non-Dutch residents from frequenting the coffee shops has
not been put in motion.