The sale of softdrugs is tolerated in The Netherlands, but advertising is in fact illegal. Publishing a pricelist on a coffeeshop’s website is a criminal offence, the Dutch High Court ruled recently. The Dutch government is planning on sharpening drugs legislation for publicizing on the internet on a short term.
What is a coffeeshop owner allowed to publish on their own website? The Dutch High Court recently was asked this question after owner John Grouws of the Amsterdam-based coffeeshop “La Canna' filed an appeal to an earlier court decision. The result: A Coffeehop’s website may not, under any circumstances, contain prices of softdrugs.
“The publishing of menu’s and prices of the softdrugs available in the defendant’s premises, is to be looked at as “revealing' in terms of article 3b, paragraph 1 of the Opium law' (the Dutch law that covers all drugs legislation). According to the Court, the publishing “was intended to increase the sales, delivery and availability of softdrugs', as the internet “is currently a very widespread, easily accessible way to acquire information on that specific subject' according to the country’s highest legislator.
The Opium-Law does indeed state that “every publication, which is meant to improve sales, delivery and availability of a certain drug (..) is illegal'. This is also called ‘poster prohibition’: every “more than subtle labeling' is punishable. Signs and stickers are taboo, and now this rule also applies to websites. If a coffeeshop owner still publishes his hash-prices online, they will be running the risk of losing their license.
Lively Photographs Allowed
La Canna’s website hasn’t changed much since the verdict; the pricelist has disappeared, but Mr. Grouws continues to promote his premises by way of his “Cool Pictures' page, which depicts photographs of, amongst other things, a mega joint and the celebrities that chose La Canna for buying their ‘stuff’. “I can promote my business, the Court did not rule on that. Those pictures are there promoting the hotel and not the softdrugs', or so he claims.
Mr. Grouws and his attorney Mr. Zegers have decided not to settle for this verdict. They are contemplating on appealing at the European Court of Justice. There are higher interests at stake, they believe. “This ruling is beyond words. Common sense in Dutch legislation is very far off; the current verdict makes no sense whatsoever', according to the angered Mr. Zegers.
Mr. Zegers states that the fact that coffeeshop-owners cannot publish their prizes on the internet and other ‘regular’ businesses can is a violation of the right of freedom of speech. He is especially disturbed by the fact that the verdict determines that the internet equals the public space.
For accessing the internet, according to the judge “it is not necessary to own a private computer, considering there are many internet shops, where everyone can access the internet after paying for the connection.' The fact that the La Canna site received 600.000 visitors in approximately 18 months weighed on the decision.
La Canna’s attorney claims that publishing on the internet is not a public distribution of the message. Not true, the High Court says: “These days the availability of equipment that a person requires to access the internet is so commonly available, that you no longer can say that only a limited number of people have access to the published materials.'
Freedom of Speech and Publicity
Mr. Zegers totally disagrees: 'On the internet you’ll need to search for subjects yourself; it is unlikely that you will spontaneously be confronted with prices of weed and hash. Internet is not like walking down the street and then seeing a sign. Apparently the judge thinks the internet is a type of public space, but it is not! '
The counsellor hypothesizes: 'Where does an internetsite begin? Where does the disclosure start? At the moment you put something online, or at the moment someone requests such a page which contains a pricelist? Especially globally, the internet is not a common domain, if only because a large number of people worldwide still is analphabetic.
Mr. Zegers is very serious about all this. According to him, the current High Court ruling also has consequences for other publications: 'What’s next? It might get to the point that when you write something in you diary that is at variance with the law the ‘Gedächtepolizei’ (Thought Police), figuratively speaking, takes you in? Right now it’s about soft drugs, but next time the subject is something different.
The attorney goes the full Monty: “I feel this is an intrusion of our sovereignty. Such a verdict is forced upon us by the United States. Mr. Donner (The Dutch Secretary of State for Justice) is being put under pressure to do something about the Dutch websites about soft drugs. In Holland, everyone who wishes to purchase soft drugs, is able to do so. This court ruling is more pointed towards foreign countries. Basically, judicial power is being misused for political reasons.'
Mr. Zegers says all this without a hint of mockery. He concludes: “This is a violation of the sovereignty of our territory. It’s frightening that foreign policies are adopted so easily by the secretary of state and the judge'.
No More E-mail
Even if that conspiracy was true, it isn’t very effective, thinks coffeeshop owner John Grouws. 'This does not solve anything. The whole world knows about the coffeeshop phenomenon in Holland, you really don’t need the internet for that. Tourists will know how to find us anyway.'
Mr. Grouws claims that the prices weren’t published for promotional purposes. 'I did not sell a gram more because of it. The menu was meant as an indication for (potential) customers of prices in Amsterdam, and my shop is far from the cheapest in the city. I’m not a price-boomer, the lists were meant as a service towards the customer. We received a large number of e-mails with price enquiries.
Mr. Grouws still receives those e-mails, but doesn’t reply, just to be sure. Sending prices by e-mail would also violate the Opium law. “My customers are allowed to put the same prices for drugs on their private websites, because they are not engaged in commercial activities. That might be a little awkward, but then again, we are not allowed to sell shirts and other articles with weed leaves on them, while the souvenir shop across the street is allowed to do so.
Mr. Grouws doesn’t think that the awareness of the department of justice’s internet policy is high amongst other coffeeshop owners in the rest of the country. “I don’t think they know that this is prohibited. I still see all kinds of price listings on the internet. The communication between the department of justice and the shop owners has its flaws.'
Deventer-based Coffeeshop International for example, still has a pricelist on its site. Coffeeshop Out of Time in Haarlem removed the prices from their online menu after an article on this subject was published in a Dutch internet magazine.
Since CDA-Secretary of State Donner has been leading the Department of justice, it has been sailing a stricter course. The number of coffeeshops is becoming smaller due to stricter law enforcement. Besides this, international political relations force the government to put more effort in internet law enforcement.
Secretary of State Donner wrote the Dutch Parliament a letter last month, stating: 'The government will enforce the prohibition of coffeeshop advertisement on the internet. Research has given evidence that coffeeshops in the border areas attract foreign tourists with internet advertising. Also, these websites have a negative effect on our image in other countries.'
“At this point we have to keep a closer eye on the internet.' justice-spokesperson Wim Kok says, 'If a coffeeshop refuses to follow the directives, it has to close down.'
The governmental standpoint will concretely imply that the DA’s office will alter its prosecution policies. “We are currently making the directives on internet and softdrugs stricter. Changes are coming, but I can’t say which exactly at this moment, as we are still working on it.' says DA-spokesperson Leendert de Lange. Other cases of coffeeshops that have been reprimanded because of their online activities are not known to him.
Many questions about coffeeshop websites remain at the municipalities, who are finally responsible for the closing down of coffeeshops. This was concluded in a research on the cannabis policy that was conducted last year. The department of justice announced that the base of information on drugs and safety (BIDS) of the union of Dutch municipalities will construct a manual for municipalities on this subject. A BIDS-spokesperson denies to have received this request.
Questions about Grow-DVD
The government also wants to take on websites that explain how to grow your own weed. Secretary of State Donner notified the Parliament: “Measures will be taken against active promotion of growing supplies for cannabis cultivation. This will clarify the borders of activity for growshops.'
Mr. Donner states this after CDA parliament member Cisca Joldersma asked questions about video rent chain Movie MAX, who offers the DVD Grow Top Quality Weed for 20 euros.
The DVD manual is presented with the slogan: “Closing down coffeeshops according to Secretary of State Donner? Just relax, go to Movie MAX!' Mrs. Joldersma wishes to know whether that’s prohibited by article 133 of the penal code, where “the procurement of means with which a criminal act can be conducted' is prohibited. The Member of Parliament also wonders “how the sales of the weed-DVD are in proportion to the sales of growing supplies in so-called grow shops.'
An official answer to these questions is still awaited, despite the elapse of the official response time available to Mr. Donner. A department of justice spokesman responds that the Secretary of State doesn’t have enough information available yet to adequately answer the questions.
It were especially the conservative Christian parties that demanded attention for the relation between drugs and the internet. Juridical employee Jacob Pot of the Christian Union Party doesn’t expect much of the measures against coffeeshop websites. “Here you can see the same problems that always arise with law enforcement on the internet.' says Mr. Pot. “Although it should be easier in this case to link a certain site to a coffeeshop, the policy for the toleration criteria clearly states that they can’t promote themselves, this includes online promotion.'
That pricelists are currently prohibited, but online pictures of weed smoking customers are not, doesn’t surprise Mr. Pot. “We are dealing with the inconsequence of this policy. Obviously we don’t support softdrug toleration, and it becomes increasingly difficult to explain the segregation between legal and illegal to society. Currently, many websites are under attack, while one is openly confronted with the sale of softdrugs on the streets of many cities.'
“This is just how our toleration policy works.' says coffeeshop owner Mr. Grouws. “With some mutual actions.