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New Amsterdam – How Dutch Cannabis Laws Have ChangedJanuary 16, 2019
When you think of Amsterdam, which comes to mind first: tulip-lined canals and well-dressed bicyclists or cannabis cafes? While cannabis enthusiasts in the US may associate the Netherlands with casual, uninhibited cannabis use, the reality is actually quite a bit more complicated.
Some readers may be surprised to learn that cannabis laws are more lax in US states like Colorado than they are in the Netherlands. And while American cannabis laws continue to loosen across the country, cannabis legislation in the Netherlands has only gotten more conservative over recent decades. Since the 1990s, Amsterdam alone has lost nearly half of its cannabis cafes. That’s bad news for residents and even worse news for Dutch tourism agencies.
Cannabis cafes draw in a lot of tourists who visit Amsterdam. In fact, roughly one-third of the city’s annual visitors buy and consume cannabis at some point during their visit, and they bring with them upwards of $170 million to local businesses each year. Across the Netherlands as a whole, one-fifth of tourists visiting the country pour money into the Dutch cannabis industry. Many of those visitors go to Amsterdam specifically for the cannabis tourism experience.
Because of this, it’s easy to assume that cannabis is legalized across Amsterdam and the Netherlands at large. But cannabis use has always been technically against the law there, even though cafes have served local and tourist cannabis needs for nearly fifty years. The de facto cannabis economy has grown substantially over the ensuing decades, but many cafes are currently struggling to stay open as long-standing cannabis norms have rapidly evolved in recent years.
The Roots of Cannabis in the Netherlands
The City of Amsterdam’s long-standing association with cannabis dates back to Mellow Yellow, a groundbreaking cannabis cafe that began operating in 1967 as part of a larger counter-cultural movement across the Netherlands. Many other cafes quickly followed suit, popping up across the country and taking advantage of a legal gray area.
In 1976, Dutch politicians signed legislation that permitted the possession and consumption of small quantities of cannabis. As a policy, Dutch police will look the other way if an individual is found to be in possession of five grams of cannabis or less.
Dutch authorities began treating personal drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal issue. In this realm, Dutch drug laws are substantially more progressive than drug laws in the United States: police and politicians in the Netherlands do not consider cannabis to be “associated with an unacceptable health risk.”
But the country never outright legalized cannabis; rather, its status has historically remained what locals refer to as “gedogen,” a Dutch term that means “tolerated.”
Anyone going into a cafe to buy cannabis can only purchase the legally-tolerated five gram maximum during a given visit. And if you’re wondering whether cannabis cafes are technically against the law, you’re right. But Dutch authorities continue to issue permits to the cafe owners in the hopes that ongoing access to cannabis, which the government considers a “soft drug,” will deter residents and tourists alike from sampling harder drugs that a street dealer might carry, such as heroin or cocaine . However, this is where the law really becomes complicated.
An Evolving Cannabis Culture
Cafes are permitted to sell cannabis and allow customers to smoke on the premises as long as the cafe’s proprietors get their cannabis from third-party sellers. By law, nothing can be grown in-house or by employees, and, across the country, growing more than five plants is considered a felony in the Netherlands.
In practice, these regulations mean that cannabis cafes have had to turn to black market growers in order to keep cannabis available to their customers—and those growers often have ties to gangs and other organized crime circuits, according to a manifesto signed by thirty-five mayors across the Netherlands. The manifesto is part of a larger push to urge their federal government towards more progressive cannabis policies, including legislation that permits large-scale growing, which is currently treated as a serious felony.
Keeping cash away from organized crime rings is not the only incentive to legalization or better government regulation. Currently there is no testing standard in place for mold, fungus, bacteria, heavy metals, or other contaminants. Some cafe owners pay out of pocket to have their cannabis tested, but there is no legal mandate for cafes to test the quality or purity of their cannabis .
An Uncertain Future
Since 2001, there’s been a significant push towards more conservative domestic policies across the Netherlands, and it all has to do with blow-hard political posturing that started after—you guessed it—9/11.
Fearing the risk of a terrorist attack like those carried out in the US, many politicians pushed for a conservative clamp down, even in far-removed countries like the Netherlands. That’s led some Dutch politicians to increasingly push for zero-tolerance drug laws, including laws that would restrict or outlaw cannabis use.
Added to those domestic challenges, Dutch lawmakers have struggled to meet the needs of neighboring countries whose leaders struggle to keep cannabis from crossing the border. There has been a substantial problem with tourists smuggling large quantities of cannabis out of the Netherlands and selling or distributing it in nearby countries that lack easy access to cannabis.
To combat the country’s drug trafficking problem, politicians in the Netherlands passed a restrictive cannabis initiative in 2012, commonly referred to as the “Weed Pass” laws, which banned tourists from Dutch cannabis cafes and restricted sales exclusively to Dutch residents. Most cities across the Netherlands ultimately ended up abandoning the Weed Pass laws, though a few cities like Maastricht still enforce the residents-only policy.
Despite these regressive policy decisions, there has been some hope for the future of the cannabis industry in the Netherlands over the past year. Some in the Dutch political world have begun working to push cannabis laws back in the other direction towards a broader system of “gedogen”/tolerance and beyond.
Breda mayor Paul Depla has been an outspoken advocate of full legalization across the Netherlands. There’s even been talk of a pilot program that would be an experiment towards nationwide legalization and taxation.
Cannabis enthusiasts as well as those who work in the Dutch cannabis industry are hopeful that a legalized cannabis structure in the Netherlands would also include legal grow operations and standardized testing. In the meantime, Dutch cannabis connoisseurs and entrepreneurs alike have got their eyes set on the US and Canadian cannabis markets. It’s a somewhat ironic development—after decades of US cannabis enthusiasts praising Amsterdam as a beacon of what cannabis use could be—Dutch smokers now hope that the cannabis industry in Amsterdam may one day be as well regulated and sensible as it has become in some parts of the United States.
Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.