Trying to take high out of holidays
BY DAVID JOLLY
AMSTERDAM — The scene at the 420 Cafe on a recent Friday was typical of what many travelers have come to associate with Amsterdam. Behind the bar, Janne Svensson, 34, a self-described ‘‘cannabis refugee’’ from Norway, weighed out small quantities of marijuana and hashish for her customers, many from foreign countries. They sat quietly, smoking and sipping coffee, as familiar strains of Jimi Hendrix drifted softly from the stereo and giant manta rays cavorted in a nature video on a big-screen television.
While there are many attractions that draw visitors to the Netherlands — including the friendly and straightforward people, world-class museums, charming architecture and elegant canal scenes — nearly a quarter of this city’s more than four million foreign tourists a year will visit its world-famous ‘‘coffeeshops,’’ where the sale of small quantities of cannabis, though not alcohol, is tolerated.
But Amsterdam’s days as a destination for hazy holidays may be numbered. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s rightist coalition is pushing to restrict the operations of the coffeeshops sharply and to bar them from selling to foreigners. If the measures survive a court challenge and the opposition of local officials, the first phase would begin May 1.
‘‘I think that by the end of next year, there will be no drug tourism in the Netherlands,’’ Ard van der Steur, a member of Parliament who is a spokesman for Mr. Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, said in an interview in The Hague. ‘‘We have created an incredible criminal industry that we need to get rid of.’’
Strictly speaking, the sale of marijuana and hashish (a resin extracted from the cannabis plant) is illegal. But a longstanding policy of tolerance — essentially a set of instructions from the Justice Ministry to the police — means that licensed coffeeshop operators are not prosecuted so long as they deal in limited quantities and keep hard drugs and minors out. The Dutch are also allowed to cultivate up to five marijuana plants each for personal use.
In some respects, tolerance appears to have been successful: despite the easy availability, the Dutch are less likely than Americans or many other Europeans to smoke marijuana, U.N. data show. Alex Stevens, a drug policy expert at the University of Kent, argues that the tolerance policy has reduced the harm caused by prohibition, in part by separating the markets for hard drugs like heroin from the market for marijuana, and by getting cannabis dealers off the street and into a regulated environment.
The impetus for changing the policy originated with, of all things, a parking shortage. In Maastricht, a southern city sandwiched between the German and Belgian borders, hundreds of drug tourists drive in daily from elsewhere in Europe to purchase marijuana, creating an infuriating traffic nuisance.
Spotting an opportunity, clandestine dealers have begun offering foreign drivers the option of buying their cannabis without ever leaving their cars. Even local residents who support the coffeeshops are unhappy that drugs are back on the streets.
Mr. Rutte’s justice minister, Ivo Opstelten, has said that, as of May 1, coffeeshops in the southern provinces are to be turned into members-only clubs, limited to 2,000 Dutch clients each. They are to maintain a registry and check IDs. Coffeeshop owners who break the law will face criminal prosecution. The remainder of the coffeeshops are to follow suit on Jan. 1.
Mr. van der Steur said the main problem with the current policy was that marijuana production had led to the creation of an expansive black market. No one knows the exact value of Dutch cannabis exports, he said, but they are thought to be greater than the annual flower exports, worth $6.6 billion.
‘‘We now function as a supplier of drugs for the rest of Europe,’’ he said. ‘‘We never intended to become one of the major exporters of cannabis to the world.’’
Additionally, almost all the hashish in the coffeeshops is imported, illegally, from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon or Morocco, rankling the government.
Mr. van der Steur said the government would begin treating high-potency marijuana as a hard drug, in the same category as heroin and cocaine, prohibiting its sale in coffeeshops. Growers now cultivate marijuana that is almost three times stronger than it was a few decades ago, he said. ‘‘The product changed totally, but the policy didn’t,’’ he said.
In theory, Mr. Rutte’s coalition with the Christian Democrats and their parliamentary ally, the far-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, have the votes to push through the changes: 83 of the 150 seats in the lower house. But the change is not assured.
Coffeeshop owners have so far failed in court to overturn the ban on sales to foreigners, but another lawsuit is being brought by the Cannabis Retailers Association, which represents the country’s 680 coffeeshops. It should be heard within the next few weeks.
Parliament is also wary of treading on the prerogative of local officials, who worry that it will bring a return to street dealing and crime. Others argue that the Netherlands, which is struggling to reduce its budget deficit in a time of austerity, cannot afford to alienate tourists.
Eberhard van der Laan, the mayor of Amsterdam, opposes the change on safety and health grounds, even though he supports the goal of reducing soft-drug use, said Tahira Limon, a spokeswoman for the city. Ms. Limon said the mayor was talking with the national government about other approaches.
Coffeeshops are not really an issue for Amsterdam, she said. ‘‘The problems we have with substance abuse are almost always related to alcohol,’’ she said. ‘‘That concerns Dutch people as much as foreigners.’’
Michael Veling, 56, owner of the 420 Café and the spokesman for the Cannabis Retailers Association, said he was skeptical that the government would get its way. More likely, he said, the policy change will be struck down in court or the issue will be left up to municipal councils. But if the law changes, he said, he would not go along.
‘‘I’m not going to build a register,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m not going to discriminate on the basis of nationality. I’ve only ever discriminated on the basis of behavior. I’ll go back to selling alcohol and go back to selling bags of weed under the counter.’’
His customers were dubious as well. Kenny and Sean, American students on a tour of Europe while studying abroad, acknowledged that the availability of marijuana was part of the reason they decided to visit Amsterdam. (The two asked not to be further identified so as to protect their future job prospects.)
‘‘We wanted to try Amsterdam because our friends all said it was awesome,’’ Sean said.
Kenny agreed. ‘‘If you smoke weed, you have to go to Amsterdam before you die,’’ he said, adding: ‘‘This place would die if they changed the weed laws. We know that. We’re business students.’’ ◼