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Amsterdam struggles to evade ban on dope-smoking tourists

By Thomas Escritt

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The mayor of Amsterdam may be unable to deliver on his promise to scrap the ban on tourists visiting the city's marijuana-selling coffee shops, the Dutch justice ministry said on Friday.

Dope smokers were relieved this week when mayor Eberhard van der Laan said the coffee shops would remain open to foreigners.

The conservative national government that lost power in September had pledged that only locals would be allowed to buy "weed" in coffee shops from the beginning of next year.

Amsterdam's marijuana cafes and bars attract millions of tourists and the outgoing government's impending ban on foreigners met strong resistance from businesses.

"We understand that the policy of the central government is to have one policy for the entire country," said a spokeswoman for the city.

"But Amsterdam's situation is very different from the rest of the country's, because we have so many tourists."

The mayor's promise has, however, ruffled feathers in The Hague, the seat of Dutch government, and the spat will determine whether decades of Dutch drug tolerance continue.

The two parties forming the Netherlands' next government want to allow cities to circumvent the national ban implemented by the former government, which included the Christian Democrats.

But the justice ministry said there was no guarantee the law would change to accommodate Amsterdam's concerns.

"The coalition agreement says that tourists will be banned from coffee shops in the whole country," a spokeswoman said. "What accommodation there will be for local requirements has not yet been finalized."

Last year's ban followed government claims that cannabis had become stronger and more dangerous and that coffee shops had criminal links.

"The mayor knows that closing the coffee shops will lead to all kinds of problems," said Laurens Buijs, a sociologist at the University of Amsterdam. "Mayors know that the government's ideological approach is not really helping."

For decades, the Netherlands has been known as a haven of tolerance for soft drugs, attracting tourists from around the world to its 700 coffee shops.

But that tolerance has drawn complaints from residents who say the influx of cannabis lovers brings congestion and crime.

Local authorities argue the ban will not only hit the economy, but will encourage illegal street dealers and push up crime rates.

(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Robert Woodward)

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