Image description: A hand holding a smoking blunt, on a green background.
The Amsterdam City Council recently made headlines with a proposal to ban foreign tourists from visiting the city’s world-famous coffee shops. Using the name as a euphemism for cannabis dispensaries, these establishments have long been a part of Amsterdam’s international identity, which annoys some locals. While the policy is not unprecedented, and would actually bring Amsterdam in line with most other Dutch cities, there has been far more opposition to these proposed laws than anywhere else in the country.
To understand the ban, one must first understand what coffee shops are. The concept stems from a loophole in Dutch anti-drug legislation that decriminalizes the possession and use of cannabis as a “soft drug” while banning its sale and commercial production.
As a result, coffee shops are allowed to sell the substance, but paradoxically they are not allowed to buy or grow it. This means that there is practically a back door for drug dealers in the Netherlands, which has led to considerable controversy over whether they should be regulated, ignored, or completely criminalized. The legal gray area has also resulted in coffee shops being frequently associated with organized crime.
Another set of questions arises from the role of drug tourism. Many Amsterdammers strongly oppose the international image of their coffee shops and their red light district, while the city government has combined its anti-coffee shop push with an increased focus on the capital’s rich artistic heritage. The behavior of typical coffee shop customers has also drawn the ire of activists, as they are often stereotyped as rowdy backpackers. Combined with the support of police and prosecutors and a socially conservative national government in power, the future of Amsterdam’s coffee shops is uncertain at best.
On the other hand, the coffee shop model has its advantages for the country. Dutch policy makes a distinction between hard and soft drugs, which aim to control and regulate the use of soft drugs while at the same time taking action against really dangerous or highly addictive hard drugs. Coffee shops are part of this pragmatic system, and advertising restrictions mean there is little they can do to directly promote the sale of their product anyway.
Coffee shops are themselves a pragmatic answer to the difficult and unsafe nature of trying to monitor soft drugs.
While customer behavior is partly due to the availability of cannabis, it is also coming from the city as a prime destination for low-cost flights and their cheap hostels. If these factors persist, the noisy backpackers are unlikely to go away completely.
While the perceived outrage at being linked to drug tourism is certainly significant, the proposed measures would cut off a large chunk of the country’s visitors and effectively wipe out the hundreds of coffeeshops that rely on tourist consumption. It is true that Amsterdam has a great many attractions that have nothing to do with cannabis. Unfortunately, none of them are the unique selling points of the country’s world-famous drug culture.
The idea of “drug tourism” portrays coffee shop customers as hedonistic backpackers who are not interested in the other aspects of Amsterdam’s rich cultural heritage and make no contribution to the wider tourism industry. Such representations are greatly simplified. Drug tourists are still eating; If anything, their cannabis use increases the likelihood that they will visit local restaurants and shops.
Another problem is whether such a ban would mean the end of drug tourism at all. Law enforcement officials in Amsterdam have backed the measures and believe that the conflicting laws behind coffee shops make it extremely difficult to enforce drug restrictions effectively. The alternative is no easier, however. Coffee shops are themselves a pragmatic answer to the difficult and unsafe nature of trying to monitor soft drugs. The fact that they have to buy their supplies illegally in order to then sell them legally is not proof that their business model is crime-friendly, but proof that Dutch drug restrictions are nonsense and that the ban on cannabis growers is out of date. Existing links between coffeeshops and drug smugglers are due to the ban, and if the city tries to crack down on the coffeeshops it is more likely to result in dubious, hard-to-police evasion than anything else.
What the proposed ban on the use of coffee shops by tourists really is is more than an actual attempt to restore the city’s dignity, a false prohibition by a right-wing government that in the past has tried to kill coffee shops whenever possible. It won’t make drug law enforcement any easier. It will destroy a valuable part of the city’s economy, hit many other parts hard, and most likely increase the spread of illegal drugs. It will no longer bring visitors to the city’s cultural attractions or draw attention to the historic homes of Rembrandt and Anne Frank. Instead, the number of visitors will be massively reduced, hindering a tourism industry already affected by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What the proposed ban really represents is more than an actual attempt to restore the city’s dignity, a false prohibition by a right-wing government that has in the past tried to kill coffee shops whenever possible.
The fact that the city government has tried to push this forward is particularly absurd as many other Dutch cities are running pilots at the same time where they have coffee shops or approved commercial growers produce their own cannabis. Ultimately, the proposed law is a nonsensical policy that does enormous harm and brings very little tangible gain.