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Man smoking cannabis
Tourists could be banned from Amsterdam coffee shopsImage: AP

Tourist drug ban

December 1, 2011

Long known as one of the world's most tolerant cities - especially on the issue of cannabis - Amsterdam is feeling the winds of change as the national government applies pressure to clean up the capital.


The Bluebird coffee shop in Amsterdam's bustling city center looks more like a birdhouse than a café. As a narrow two-story establishment, Bluebird is a destination for regulars rather than first-timers. But like most coffee shops in Amsterdam, tourists who seek shall indeed find. Amsterdam offers hundreds of cozy cafés to smoke cannabis and chill out, free of the paranoia of getting busted.

But all this could soon be a thing of the past.

The national government is taking measures to reduce cannabis use by lowering the legal amount of THC to 15 percent in the marijuana sold in coffee shops. Within four years, the government also plans to issue a "weed pass" to locals, ultimately excluding tourists from smoking in shops. The idea is to combat drug tourism in Dutch border towns.

According to the manager of the Bullfrog restaurant and bar - an ex-police station that boasts one of Amsterdam's most celebrated coffee shops in its basement - tourists make up 85 percent of their clientele.

Aline, manager and part owner of La Tertulia coffee shop, said she believes a majority of Dutch people do not even smoke marijuana.

"I guess the whole idea of going to a coffee shop is more interesting to tourist than to locals," Aline told Deutsche Welle, "especially in the center of Amsterdam."

Street dealing

Mick is a Briton by birth and long-time resident of Amsterdam. He is an elderly man who sits alone at Bluebird's upstairs bar, smoking a joint while surveying the crowd.

He says he is not worried about the tourist ban because prohibition has never worked in Amsterdam.

"I don't think it can happen in Amsterdam," said Mick. "If they can't come in the coffee shops then they're going to buy it on the streets. So there's going to be loads of dealers selling loads of bullshit."

Street dealing is the common concern among shop owners, customers and the average Amsterdam citizen. It is one reason why the Netherlands has allowed a safe, controlled environment for people to use soft drugs, namely cannabis and hashish, for 35 years.

But last year, the Netherlands voted in a new conservative coalition government - the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Christian Democrats (CDA), supported by Geert Wilder's far-right Party for Freedom (PVV).

Since then, there have been a number of changes in the country and they are re-shaping its reputation as a tolerant and lenient place.

In the next two years, the coalition government plans to revoke cannabis licenses granted to coffee shops that are located within 350 meters of a school.

About 50 coffee shops will have to close their doors to smokers. And with it, it is said the livelihoods of many Amsterdam natives, whose shops have been passed on through generations, will feel the pinch.

"We were supposed to leave at the end of 2011 because we are 250 meters from a school," said Aline of La Tertulia. "But now they've decided to wait at least another year and make it 350 meters instead of 250. But it really depends on who's in government."

Man smoking cannabis
The Dutch government wants to close coffee shops that are located within 350 meters of a schoolImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

The back door to drugs

Amsterdam is seen as the black sheep among other Dutch cities, but it has managed to hold on tight to its liberal agenda.

While Mayor Eberhard Edzard van der Laan of the Labor Party strongly opposes the new drug laws, the Christian Democrat Party (CDA) - which holds only two of the 45 seats in the Amsterdam council - wants soft drugs removed from the capital's clasp of cultural attractions.

"When you walk around the city center of Amsterdam, you trip over people who are hanging around stoned, which is not the picture some of us want," Marijke Shahsavari-Jansen, a CDA member of city council, told Deutsche Welle. "A lot of the people who own coffee shops are being linked to criminal activity, not only buying drugs at the back door."

Marijuana is not legal in the Netherlands - but it is decriminalized. This means you can possess a small amount for personal use and not be charged.

"[But] what they buy at the back door is illegal, and they could be arrested for that. So it's a weird system," said Shahsavari-Jansen.

For three years, Vereniging voor Opheffing van het Cannabisverbod (VOC - the Society for the Abolition of Cannabis Prohibition) has been working to unite all sectors of cannabis culture, from growers to shop owners to merchandisers, and has actively promoted an end to cannabis prohibition.

Derrick Bergman, official spokesperson for VOC, said that marijuana distribution is the one problem area that keeps Dutch drug laws from running smoothly.

"The back door has no regulation whatsoever," said Bergman. "So what the government basically presumes is that the weed they're selling in the shops just falls out of the sky everyday in packages of 500 grams."

The price of tourism

Woman smoking cannabis
The ban may prove hard to stick in the capitalImage: Fotolia/Couperfield

There is some consensus that banning tourists from coffee shops across the country will harm the tourist industry.

Shahsavari-Jansen and her party accept the consequences.

"If that is the down side of closing coffee shops," said Shahsavari-Jansen, "I'm pretty happy to pay that price."

"Amsterdam likes to consider itself a republic within the monarchy of the Netherlands," laughed Shahsavari-Jansen. "Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands and Dutch law applies to it as much as it applies to any other city."

But other locals - including coffee shop owner Aline - expect the government will have to negotiate a few more hurdles before it can make the ban stick.

Author: Melanie Sevcenko, Amsterdam
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany

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