By Hilde Verweij
NIJMEGEN, Netherlands (Reuters) – While most of the Netherlands struggles through the coronavirus lockdown, marijuana smokers received the welcome news that “coffee shops” selling the drug have reopened for takeaway orders.
All businesses selling cannabis and hashish were ordered to shut, along with sex clubs and saunas, when the Dutch government imposed on March 15 measures to curb the COVID-19 epidemic.
A limited reopening has been allowed to avoid black market drug deals and ensure supplies of medicinal cannabis. With coronavirus regulations prohibiting gatherings of people, however, buyers are no longer permitted to stay for a smoke.
“What we saw is that people rushed to the coffee shops to buy something,” Nijmegen Mayor Hubert Bruls said in an interview.
“We decided the next day, along with the government, that people can at least pick something up.”
Bruls said Dutch authorities wanted to avoid driving the sales underground to an unregulated black market.
“It’s a choice between two evils because you can say ‘close the coffee shop’ but then we know one thing for sure, that the illegal trade will come back.”
At the Jetset coffee shop in the eastern town of Nijmegen, safety precautions have been introduced to protect buyers and sellers from possibly infecting each other.
“We can refuse entry to coughers and sneezers” and “Hand sanitizer required on entry” signs outside read.
“We have a whole bunch of people using it for medicinal purposes: pain relievers, people with multiple sclerosis, people with chemotherapy who really benefit from it,” said Stan Esmeijer, owner of the Kronkel coffee shop next door to Jetset.
“It also gives a bit of relaxation. Especially in these times, it’s nice that you also have moments when you can relax. One person uses a drink for that and the other a joint,” he said.
The Netherlands allows the sale of small quantities of cannabis in a policy aimed at managing crime and health risks. Usage rates are far lower than in many other countries.
(Reporting by Hilde Verweij; Writing by Anthony Deutsch, editing by Ed Osmond)