AMSTERDAM (Reuters Life!) - Could a smoking ban spell the end of Amsterdam's world famous coffee shops, where smoking cannabis is one of the main attractions?
No chance, says local conservative politician and coffee shop owner Michael Veling.
The Dutch may well follow other European countries in banning tobacco smoking in restaurants, cafes and bars, but Veling says it should still be possible to smoke dope.
"It is ridiculous to think that a smoking ban would be the end of coffee shops", the 50-year-old Veling says.
He says the clientele who have been coming to coffee shops to buy and inhale cannabis are flexible enough to find a way around any ban on smoking the tobacco products they routinely mix with marijuana resin or leaf in rolled paper "joints".
"You can bring parsley or old socks if you want, cut them here and smoke them, nobody will say anything," Veling said.
"Plus there are plants that have a every similar structure to tobacco and can maybe substitute for it."
A tobacco smoking ban, which could come into force at the start of 2008, may also boost the use of some of the weirder contraptions used for inhaling the active part of marijuana, THC, which gives users a high.
"Nearly all of our American customers do that anyway, using pipes or the "volcano"," Veling says in his dark, cosy coffee shop, pointing to a shiny, cone-shaped silver contraption.
The volcano or vaporizer heats cannabis to release vapors of THC and channels these into a long transparent balloon.
At the counter, a dark-haired man waits to get the air from the balloon into his lungs. Using the volcano makes cannabis consumption cheaper, Veling explains, because the drug can be used several times and is not burned like in a pipe.
"On good days, when the shop is full of Americans, we sell 100 or 200 of these balloons", Veling says.
But most European customers of his "De Kuil" in central Amsterdam prefer to roll their marijuana with tobacco into joints, Veling admits.
One of them is Czech-born, Swiss resident Pavel Kotrba, sitting near the entrance with a broad smile and dilated pupils.
If a ban came into force, he says: "I would smoke my joint on the street in front of the coffee shop, no problem".
Soft drugs are legally banned in the Netherlands but under a policy of "tolerance", buyers are allowed to have less than 5 g of cannabis in their possession.
Government-regulated coffee shops sell cannabis and can keep stocks of up to 500 g.
Coffee shops first sprung up in the Netherlands in the 70s and have been drawing tourists ever since.
So far the majority of Dutch parliamentarians have urged that the coffee shops be exempt from any smoking ban, but a more sweeping Europe-wide ban might be introduced.
Unlike many of his colleagues in the soft drug retail business, Veling, who is also speaker of the Dutch Cannabis Retailers organization, does not consider the ban a danger to the industry which he estimates rolls in more than 1 billion euros ($1.36 billion) a year.
Most of the more than 700 coffee shops in the Netherlands would not even be affected by it anyway, he says, as they resemble cannabis drive-ins, where people queue in front of counters, buy and leave.
"Some of these shops are huge and generate sales of approximately five million euros a year," he says.
Plus recent legislation banning the sale of both alcohol and cannabis together in coffee shops doesn't seem to have irked his customers too much.
"They smoke more, that's my impression."