The first time I went to Amsterdam was in February of 1993. I had recently become the National Director of NORML.org, but I had previously met a number of Dutch officials and activists at the original Drug Policy Foundation (predecessor of the Drug Policy Alliance) conferences in the late 1980s.
Incredibly, lying about the Dutch was a basic part of the U.S. prohibitionist party line, so I decided that it would be useful to be able to to say, “I have just returned from Amsterdam and…”
After all, what the Dutch were doing was supposed to be impossible and disastrous and “double plus ungood.”
My first stop was a little coffeeshop across from my hotel. As I went in, I nervously looked both ways with the paranoia of a citizen of the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” (Pause for tears and laughter).
Later, I had an appointment (arranged by my Dutch friends) with the head of the “Vice squad” of the Amsterdam police. He made clear that there were seldom any problems at the coffeeshops, but lots of calls for the police at Amsterdam’s numerous (over 1,100) bars.
Now, decades later, when the world is recognizing that the Dutch were right all along, Amsterdam is probably going to ban foreigners from its coffeeshops. How is this happening?
Of course, the coffeeshops have never been legal, so it gets even more confusing. The cannabis business website, NewFrontierData.com explains it well:
“When coffeeshops were introduced in the early 1970s in an experimental harm-reduction programme, lawmakers never envisioned the scale of today’s operations. There have been concerted efforts to reduce the number of coffeeshops in the Netherlands. Nationwide today, there are some 500-plus coffeeshops, compared to a peak of around 1,500-2,000 in the mid ‘90s. The number of coffeeshops had been going down for decades, whilst at the same time the population has grown and demand is roughly the same…”
Amsterdam in its “Golden Age” was the richest city in Europe, but it took a long time after World War II for its economy to recover. Unlike Rotterdam, it had not suffered a lot of damage, but there were many empty storefronts and it was easy to get a license to sell coffee, hence the euphemism “coffeeshops.” And there were many hundreds by the time I got there.
The last time I was in Amsterdam, about two years ago, they had the opposite problem: “Overtourism.” The sidewalks were crowded, especially the so-called “Redlight District,” which is in the original Medieval part of the city.
There are coffeeshops all over Amsterdam and in every city in the country, but only in the border towns, by Germany and Belgium, was cannabis tourism a problem. It did nothing for the local economies, but was a nuisance for the natives. Consequently, the Dutch parliament passed a law banning foreigners from the coffeeshops, but Amsterdam was allowed to opt out … at the option of the mayor.
Of course, Amsterdam has millions of tourists and business visitors and the city, which is really rather small, doesn’t need us anymore. Or so some think.
The Netherlands is one of the most democratic countries in the world, but the appointed mayor of Amsterdam has the sole authority to ban tourists from the city’s “coffeeshops” and is expected to do just that… sometime in the near future.
“In a letter to the council, mayor Femke Halsema, the public prosecution service OM and the police have said that in the future they only want Dutch residents to have access to the shops to buy and smoke cannabis. Efforts to reduce criminality linked with the industry in the past two decades have reduced the number of coffeeshops in Amsterdam from 283 to 166 now but the demand for dope has still increased, according to the letter. So called cannabis tourists have contributed to this, says Halsema. Before the coronavirus outbreak, foreign tourists were visiting coffeeshops an estimated 1.5m times a month. Halsema also points out that research suggests a large proportion of foreign tourists would not want to come to Amsterdam if they cannot go to a coffeeshop. In recent months, calls have increased from politicians, businesses, tourist bodies and residents of the Dutch capital to enforce a national law which means only residents can buy from the coffeeshops. It was never enforced in Amsterdam because of concerns that it would drive the trade on to the street. ‘We are absolutely not heading for a cannabis-free Amsterdam because coffeeshops belong to the city,’ Halsema said, according to the Parool. ‘But there is a huge desire to change the tourism. Our freedom should not be a license for large groups of young people to throw up in the canals because they have smoked and drunk too much.’ The mayor also intends to limit the number of coffeeshops in any chain and regulate the supply with a new ‘quality mark’. Although coffeeshops fall under the mayor’s responsibilities, the new proposal will be discussed by Amsterdam council to draw up definitive plans, and there will also be a transition period before any ruling is enforced.”
But I already know what will happen. When you walk through the city you will hear a voice behind you, “Psst. Hash! Cocaine! Ecstasy!” One of the main reasons that they allowed the coffeeshops was to “Separate the Markets” for “soft drugs” and “hard drugs.” If there wasn’t a large demand for cannabis, it wouldn’t matter, but there are huge numbers of tourists and business visitors who will still want to buy cannabis, and the Street will provide it.
Of course, a lot of the souvenir shops and restaurants, already devastated by the pandemic will close permanently, as will most of the coffeeshops in the center. Then, when the damage has been done, Amsterdam will rejoin the world it once led.
Instead of banning them, it should fully legalize them and then ban tourists from buying alcohol, which is the real problem. (Not really! But by their logic…)
But in the meantime, we will always have Las Vegas. And Denver and…
Richard Cowan is a former NORML National Director and author of CBD News for Senior Citizens.