It’s probably not the first time you read a title stating that cannabis tourism might end in Amsterdam. It’s happened before. However, with a new policy in the air, the city might actually shut its coffeeshop doors to non-residents, ending cannabis tourism in Amsterdam, which truly would be the end of an era.
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For a long time, there weren’t a lot of options for tourists who wanted to find a place to smoke marijuana. The cannabis tourism in Amsterdam revolves around its coffeeshops, which have often been the best known, and sometimes only known, place where a tourist could sit and enjoy a smoke without law enforcement breathing down their neck. Things have changed though. Cannabis social clubs exist in tons of countries. Some countries have altogether legalized, with others on the way. And many of the counties that have not, have loosened their policies, often turning a blind eye to small cannabis offences. Amsterdam has already been losing its value in the last few years.
Amsterdam and cannabis
The first thing to do is to look at the general laws that govern cannabis use in the Netherlands. First and foremost, cannabis is not legal for recreational use. This is confusing to some due to the abundance of cannabis coffeeshops where people do, indeed, smoke freely. The Netherlands does consider cannabis to be a soft drug. The 1928 Opium Act made the drug illegal; however, a 1972 Policy of Tolerance was instituted, which allows the coffeeshops to operate, and for the cannabis tourism market in Amsterdam to thrive.
Local authorities have the ability to decide if a person has made a violation of cannabis law, but this happens mostly in extreme cases – like endangering a child, and law enforcement tend to look the other way for small infractions. Smoking cannabis in public places is considered illegal which is why, when in Amsterdam, you don’t find people smoking in the streets (which I can personally attest to.)
Amsterdam does have personal use laws which allow for five grams. The fine for being caught with more than this is €75 – which is actually pretty low when compared to other countries. A large enough amount can incur a prison sentence, however, there are no specifics here and the punishment is applicable to the explicit occurrence.
Cultivation is decriminalized for five plants or less, and if caught, the plants will likely be confiscated, but no punishment will be handed down so long as the plants were being grown for personal use. If it is determined that they were not for personal use, the offender could be prosecuted, or find themselves in mandatory community service. Commercial growing is illegal for private citizens, as is trafficking, but that probably doesn’t have to be said.
Obviously, we know that cannabis can be sold in the Netherlands. Those coffeeshops aren’t there to serve coffee! The way this works is through the Law of Tolerance, which allows coffeeshop owners to sell marijuana so long as they abide by strict laws, like not selling alcohol, not selling to minors, not selling more than a certain amount to a single person, not keeping more than 500 grams in stock, not advertising sales, and not selling to non-residents. This last point is generally ignored (which I can also attest to), but it seems like the Netherlands is looking to make a change.
The Netherlands back-door market
The laws in the Netherlands are somewhat contradictory, which has led to a massive back-door market. This market has been causing quite a problem that the government has been trying hard to fix. You see, coffeeshop owners can legally sell cannabis to their patrons, but according to Netherland laws, they cannot legally purchase said cannabis from growers, as cultivation is illegal. Since coffeeshops are not subsisting on any kind of government grown cannabis, this has created a massive ‘back-door’ market.
Since it is a back-door market, there is no quality assurance (though owners will likely not buy repeatedly from a grower if their patrons don’t like the product), and it invites the participation of criminal organizations. One of the main reasons that the government would like to close this back-door probably doesn’t have as much to do with what was just stated (considering how long they’ve allowed it), but more to do with lost tax money, since coffeeshop owners are buying the product tax free.
To give some idea of the monetary value here, most of the cannabis grown in the Netherlands comes from an area called Brabant. According to a 2016 study, just the city of Tilburg alone (within this region) employs approximately 2,500 people in the illegal cannabis industry, with €800 million per year in revenue coming out of that single location. The entire illegal cannabis industry in the Netherlands was estimated by Statistics Netherlands to be worth about €4.8 billion in the year 2015 alone. To combat this, the government set up plans to hand out cultivation licenses for producers to supply cannabis to coffeeshops, though how this would effect pricing, through increased taxation, is hard to say. It also hasn’t happened yet.
Will cannabis tourism be over in Amsterdam?
The government has tried before to stop tourists from being able to access coffeeshops, but so far nothing stuck, and the pushback was apparently enough to shut the government up for at least a little while. It seems its looking to try it again. While it hasn’t been put into effect – and might not be in the end, the mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, proposed limiting who can enter coffeeshops just in Amsterdam, to citizens of the Netherlands. This would affect 166 coffeeshops, and is said to be important in order to decrease overcrowding in the red-light district. As Halsema put it, “We have seen many groups of young people who only come to Amsterdam to go to the ‘coffeeshops’.”
It’s said the number of coffeeshops could be reduced down to 73 by the year 2025, to meet only the demand of residents in the city. Last February, Halsema referred to a published report by the Dutch Office for Research, Information and Statistics which indicated that tourism would decrease if a policy limiting coffeeshops was put in place. According to the report 34% of those who responded claimed they’d come back less frequently if coffeeshops were not available to them, and 11% said they would not come back at all. Said Halsema to Dutch TV station NOS, “We would like tourists interested in the richness and beauty of cultural institutions to come here, and not tourists who only come here to walk around drunk and drugged.”
The new proposition wouldn’t just stop foreigners from entering coffeeshops, it would do a couple other things. The new policy would include setting up an Amsterdam coffee shop brand, and would limit coffeeshops from becoming chains. In order for this to go through, the city parliament would also have to approve the new update.
Let’s break this craziness down
At one of the worst times monetarily on a global level, the Netherlands wants to actively limit tourism. And when I say the ‘Netherlands’, I mean the mayor of Amsterdam, and apparently local police, and the public prosecutor’s office. At a time when other countries are rushing to change cannabis laws in order to grab at any available revenue, the mayor of Amsterdam is not only dumb enough to try to cut revenue coming in by cutting tourism, but is dumb enough to think this won’t bring the drugs that were kept in the coffeeshops previously, onto the streets.
The spokesman for the Association of Cannabis Retailers in Amsterdam, Joachim Helms, had a much more realistic view of this, saying “Banning the tourists from the coffeeshops now will have a major negative side-effect. That is that the people who still want to smoke cannabis – and that’s a lot of people – will go to buy it on the streets from street dealers.” And it’s really hard logically to assume on any level that this would not be the case. Not only would more drugs be on the streets, which seems to be a stated issue of the mayor, but revenue from tourism would go down as well. How does this help anything?
To show on another level just how ridiculous this is, think of the argument Halsema is making. She wants to decrease overcrowding in a red-light district. I’ve never heard a public official say something like that. And I’ve been there, it’s not that bad. Nothing that would necessitate such measures. With thinking like that, half of Chinese cities would have to be destroyed for having too many people. I’ve been to much more uncomfortably crowded places, and none of them are talking about restricting tourists.
The even more ridiculous line, though, is this one: “We would like tourists interested in the richness and beauty of cultural institutions to come here, and not tourists who only come here to walk around drunk and drugged.” Is the mayor of Amsterdam trying to tell people what they should be interested in, and that only people with certain interests should be allowed to visit? Again, I’ve never heard of such a thing. Tourism is tourism, and money in money. A country doesn’t get to tell those interested in it, what to be interested in, and it shouldn’t! It should be glad for the revenue. Tourism is competitive. Apparently this public official can’t conceptualize what will happen to the Netherlands without this influx of tourists.
Last, but not least, setting up an Amsterdam coffee shop brand sounds like a way to limit who can own a coffeeshop at all. In fact, while it also states that coffeeshops cannot become chains, it sounds like the desire is to make it all one brand, and one chain. Not enough attention has been paid to these statements in the media, or what they actually mean.
Will it happen?
My guess is no, and for two reasons. The first reason can be seen in the illogical reasoning of the mayor which could work to tank the tourist economy, and hurt the regular economy with it. If her words sound so ludicrous to me, they will to many others as well. The argument is flawed, and could be damaging, and this has already been tried before and failed.
The second reason might be more important though. The Netherlands hasn’t actually closed the back-door market. In fact, this new attempt to stop tourists from entering coffeeshops might even be a last-ditch effort to limit an industry that the government can’t really control. But that should be paid attention to. If the government isn’t controlling the supply chain, then criminal organizations are, and they won’t be as happy about this happening. It’s one thing to try to convince the public (which probably won’t happen with such paltry arguments), but its another thing entirely to take money away from criminal organizations. And because of this, I doubt it’ll go through in the end.
In an article from last year about how the Netherlands wants to close the back-door market, Professor Pieter Tops, one of the country’s leading experts on how organized crime impacts society, made this statement: “This is a schizophrenic situation we’ve somehow managed to live with for 40 years. But no longer. The drugs gangs are increasingly out of control. That inevitably raises the question of whether our policy of tolerance and decriminalization may have been a fundamental mistake.” Whether a person agrees with Tops (who didn’t actually make a statement about citizens being in danger), or not, what he does make clear is that the cannabis industry is not in the hands of the government at all.
Nothing is set in stone right now, and this is certainly not the first time the Netherlands has tried to stop cannabis tourism. If cannabis tourism is over in Amsterdam, the Netherlands as a whole will most definitely feel it. Considering the competition out there, and the awful state of things in the world, you’d think the country would be smart enough to hold on as tightly as possible to what it has. But then, whoever said public officials were working for their people?
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