THE HAGUE — A Dutch court fined the owner of the Netherlands' biggest cannabis-vending coffee shop $13 million on Thursday after police seized more than 440 pounds of the drug on its premises.
The penalty would have been larger, the district court of southwestern Middelburg said in a statement, had it not been for the "role of the authorities" in coffee shop Checkpoint's longstanding success.
While finding that Checkpoint was a criminal organization that had transgressed the Opium Act, the court said "the role of the authorities weighed heavily in the determination of the sentence".
"Checkpoint could not have expanded as much as it did without collaboration from the municipality of Terneuzen" near the Belgian border, the statement said. "Also, the police never warned that the coffee shop had to scale down."
Coffee shop owner Meddy Willemsen, 58, was tried with 15 others, including former employees and suppliers of his Terneuzen-based coffee shop for drug trafficking and involvement in a criminal organisation.
The other sentences ranged from mere warnings for those who "rolled the joints" and delivered the cannabis, to six-week jail terms, already served in pre-arrest, for the manager and three vendors, Willemsen's lawyer Andre Beckers said.
Police seized over 440 pounds of cannabis on Checkpoint's premises in 2007 and 2008.
Though technically illegal, the Netherlands decriminalised the consumption and possession of under 5 grams of cannabis in 1976 under an official "tolerance" policy.
Cannabis cultivation and mass retail remain illegal and are in the hands of criminal organisations in a black-market business worth $2.8 billion a year.
About 700 licensed coffee shops countrywide are permitted to stock no more than 500 grams of the soft drug at any given time, but this limit is often flouted.
Before shutting its doors in May 2008, Checkpoint counted up to 3,000 customers a day, mainly French and Belgian.
The Checkpoint trial, described by prosecutors as the biggest of its kind, was widely viewed as a test case in a country that has been toughening its stance on soft drug use.
The government mooted plans last year to transform coffee shops near the Belgian border into private clubs, to address what critics describe as the nuisance created by millions of drug tourists a year.
The capital, Amsterdam, has said it will halve its number of coffee shops, citing criminality, while other cities are closing shops within a certain distance from schools.
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