THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- With slogans like "Don't let your vote go up in smoke!", owners of the free-wheeling cafes where bags of hashish are sold alongside cups of coffee are mounting a get-out-the-stoner-vote campaign ahead of next week's Dutch election.
The campaigners are calling on their sometimes apathetic dope smoking clientele to get out and support political parties that oppose the recently introduced "weed pass" that is intended to rein in the cafes known as coffee shops and close them altogether to foreign tourists.
At a coffee shop in The Hague, a member of staff selling weed wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a modified Uncle Sam style poster calling on smokers to "Vote against the weed pass on Sept. 12." Under the new system, coffee shops become member-only clubs and only Dutch residents can apply for a pass to get in. The cafes are limited to a maximum of 2,000 members.
The online vote2smoke.nl campaign offers cannabis and marijuana users voting advice by showing which political parties support dumping the "weed pass," which came into force in the southern Netherlands earlier this year and is intended to roll out over the whole country in coming years.
Joep Oomen of the legalize cannabis movement says it is hard to know exactly how big the pot-smoking constituency is, but he estimates it at around half a million people in this nation of 16 million.
Basically the advice to them boils down to this: Voting for any political party on the left is good, and any party on the right is bad.
One champion of the smokers' lobby is Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer, a jovial 50-year-old former teacher whose party is expected to make significant gains at the Sept. 12 election.
Speaking at a campaign event this weekend, Roemer called the weed pass "incredibly stupid" and vowed to scrap it if he wins power.
He said the pass system simply pushes drug dealers onto the streets and out of the controlled environment of the coffee shops – "so stop the wietpas," he said, using its Dutch name.
Jerome Croonenberg, enjoying a joint at The Hut coffee shop in a side street close to the Dutch parliament building, said he would be voting for Roemer because of his coffee shop policy.
"I will vote to keep coffee shops open so I can keep smoking," he said Tuesday.
The center-left Labor Party, which is surging in pre-election polls thanks to strong performances by its leader Diederik Samsom in televised debates, also advocates scrapping the pass and replacing it with legislation that would further enshrine tolerance of marijuana in Dutch law and regulate not only coffee shops but also growers.
However, the coffee shops still have a fight on their hands – the conservative VVD party of outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte is topping polls and looks set to become the biggest single party. It was a VVD-led coalition that introduced the weed pass and it is standing by the policy.
If Rutte winds up negotiating a centrist coalition, all parties would likely be willing to bend or drop their position on the pass in favor of other policy goals.
Coffee shops have long been tolerated in the Netherlands because authorities believe they keep dope smokers away from street dealers of more dangerous and outlawed drugs like cocaine and heroin.
The cafes have become tourist magnets in Amsterdam, but Rutte's government clamped down on them because they are blamed for crime, traffic and parking problems in towns and cities close to the Dutch borders with Germany and Belgium.
In those places, authorities say that many of the clients are foreign drug runners who drive in from neighboring countries to stock up on marijuana.
The VVD's election manifesto underscores the party's support for the weed pass, and other right-leaning parties who back the crackdown on cannabis.
Marc Josemans, who runs a coffee shop in the southern city of Maastricht and has long fought against the weed pass, says he is attempting to push smokers to the voting booths to support parties that reject the pass.
It can be tough work, he said in a telephone interview.
"We are trying to make clear to cannabis consumers all over Holland ... that this year is your last chance to save your cannabis policy and your coffee shop," Josemans said. "And therefore it's about time you get out of your lazy chairs on Sept. 12 and vote for a cannabis-friendly party."
Josemans said the introduction of the pass system in May has driven dealing onto the streets, with "weed taxis " now delivering door-to-door, with far less control by the authorities than in coffee shops.
"It is extremely doubtful if the coffee shop (can) survive," if the policy continues, he said.
Much of smokers' anger is directed at the policy of having to supply personal details to get a weed pass.
"I don't want to apply for a pass because then everybody could see your personal information," Croonenberg said. "You don't have to do it in a bar to get alcohol, so why in a coffee shop?"