For the past half-century, Amsterdam has been considered the Cannabis capital of Europe, if not the world. Long before legalization seemed possible here in America, Amsterdam’s coffeeshops were the only place where one could buy and consume marijuana openly without fear of criminal repercussion – thanks to the Netherlands’ policy of “soft drug” tolerance (gedoogbeleid). But over the past decade, that tolerance has eroded due to the right-leaning Christian national government and complaints from the citizenry.
Just before the pandemic, tourism to Amsterdam was at an all-time high – averaging nearly 2 million visitors per month – half of whom were there, at least in part, to visit some of the city’s 166 Cannabis coffeeshops and/or infamous Red Light District. Residents have long decried the throngs of ill-behaved tourists who reportedly piss, puke, litter, shout and fight in their streets, and seeing the city tourist-free during the COVID lockdown has only spotlighted these “overtourism” complaints.
To address these “quality of life” concerns, the Dutch government began taking steps to reduce tourism: banning new hotels and tourist-targeted businesses (such as Red Light tours and souvenir shops), restricting Airbnb rentals and increasing their “tourist tax.” In 2012, they introduced the “wietpas” (weed pass) policy, which banned non-residents from visiting coffeeshops; however, until now, the policy has been enforced primarily in border municipalities (where many rowdy tourists enter from neighboring countries like Germany, France, Britain and Belgium) rather than in Amsterdam, where weed tourism comprises a significant portion of the city’s economy. Sadly though, it looks like that’s about to change.
Earlier this year, Amsterdam’s first female mayor Femke Halsema, proposed, among other things, enforcing the wietpas ban in the capital for the first time. In a letter to the city council on January 8, Halsema outlined a series of policy changes regarding the city’s Cannabis industry. Aside from the so-called “residence criterion,” the proposal would also institute new licensing requirements to legalize the supply chain – allowing shops to purchase their Cannabis legally from government-approved sources (thus eliminating the problem of illegal “backdoor” suppliers who are often connected to organized crime) and keep more stock on-premises. However, these new requirements would also limit the number of locations each coffeeshop brand can operate and eliminate over half of the remaining coffeeshops in the city.
As expected, coffeeshop owners are pushing back hard against these measures. Joachim “Joa” Helms, co-owner of the legendary Green House coffeeshop and spokesman for the Dutch Cannabis Retailers Association (BCD), says that the coffeeshop industry is being unfairly targeted for the problem of misbehaving tourists.
“People who come to smoke weed aren’t the ones causing the disturbance,” he asserts. “Usually, it’s guys being loud on the street and being drunk – and those aren’t typical coffeeshop people.”
So if drunk people are causing most of the problems, BCD representatives argue, why not ban tourists from bars? They also point out that the ban will only exacerbate the very criminality officials claim to be concerned about.
“If you want to prevent an illegal market, then coffeeshops are essential,” says Helms. “Every smoker that’s not allowed in a coffeeshop is one that buys his weed from an illegal dealer!”
According to them, the tourist ban is bad policy for several reasons: It endangers tourists by exposing them to shady street dealers who also sell hard drugs, carry weapons and rip people off; it funnels revenue from Cannabis sales into the hands of criminals, rather than regulated, tax-paying businesses; and it forces tourists to consume their Cannabis out in public, rather than inside designated shops, thus exposing passersby to their smoke.
“With the US and Canada legalizing, Cannabis culture is only getting bigger and bigger,” Helms observes. “So instead of closing shops to tourists, we should embrace what this city was always known for and legalize. That’s the best, most obvious solution.”
As of now, plans to relocate the Red Light District from the city center to a new “sex zone” on the outskirts of town are already underway, and the Cannabis control proposal is on track to take effect next year. Even if the ban does go into effect, however, many predict it will be short-lived, as the loss of Cannabis tourism is sure to have a devastating effect on the city’s economy – not just the coffeeshop owners, but also hotels, tour operators, restaurants and other businesses.
Hopefully, a fairer compromise can be negotiated that addresses residents’ legitimate concerns, while still allowing tourists to continue enjoying Amsterdam’s world-renowned coffeeshop culture.