In Holland, Cannabis Politics Heats Up
For more than 30 years under the policy of "gedoogbeleid," which
could best be translated as "pragmatic tolerance," the Dutch have
allowed the sale of personal amounts of marijuana through the coffee
house system, even though doing so is technically illegal. But
lately, especially for those of us on this side of the water, a black
cloud appears to be hovering over the coffee shops. The number of
coffee shops has contracted from about 1,500 in 1995 to 720 now, as
successive governments have tightened the screws. The current
national government is hostile, if somewhat divided on the issue, and
recent headlines about moves to close coffee shops in some border
towns and reduce their numbers across the country add to the ominous picture.
But the picture is nowhere near as gloomy as presented by the
occasional Reuters or Associated Press report covering such
developments. Dutch cannabis policy is approaching a tipping point,
the status quo is under pressure, but the end result is more likely
to be the creation of a vertically-integrated legal cannabis
production and sales industry than the end of the coffee houses and
retreat back into prohibition.
Three parties in coalition form the national government: the Social
Democrats (PvdA), the Christian Democrats (CDA), and Christian Unity
(CU), a fundamentalist Christian Party. The two Christian parties
oppose drug use in general and the coffee shop system in particular,
and would like to see it go away. But the most powerful party in the
coalition, the Social Democrats, is much less hostile, and even
amenable to regulating cannabis production as well as retail sales.
While the Christian parties appear implacable in their opposition on
moral grounds, the PvdA and the opposition parties are arguing more
pragmatically over a pair of issues that have come to symbolize the
"problems" of the coffee shops. One is the endless influx of cannabis
buyers from neighboring countries with more repressive laws, who clog
the city centers of border towns and sometimes deal with hard drug
dealers and create public nuisances as well. The other major issue
around the coffee shops is the "backdoor problem," wherein, while
retail sales at the coffee shops are tolerated, the wholesale supply
of cannabis to the coffee shops remains tethered to a criminal netherworld.
"It is true that some problems have arisen around the coffee shops,"
said Joost Sneller, assistant to opposition DP66 Party MP Boris van
der Ham, "but a lot of that has to do with vagueness surrounding
cultivation, and not with the coffee shops themselves. The backdoor
problem is only a problem because we make it so," Sneller argued.
"There is one simple solution, and that is legalization of backdoor
purchase and the regulation of the entire soft drugs chain. The
selling of cannabis should be licensed," he said.
"The coffee shops are a good way to deal with soft drugs and regulate
their sales," agreed Velzen van Krista, an opposition Socialist Party
MP. "The coffee shop system definitely ensures that people who buy
soft drugs don't get mixed up with hard drug sellers."
While the coffee shops are a good interim measure, the best approach
would be to simply regulate the whole trade, said van Krista. "Our
people don't use soft drugs at a higher rate than surrounding
countries, and since it is being used anyway and making it illegal
doesn't help, we might as well just legalize it," she argued. "That
would create legal jobs, taxable income, quality control, even jobs
in security work, because there is a lot of dough in growing."
Marc Josemans, a coffee shop proprietor since 1983, is president of
the Maastricht coffee shop association, representing all 14 coffee
shops in the border city. The Maastricht association is one of eight
regional associations, all of which are organized into the national
coffees shop association, LOC, which represents about a third of all
coffee shops in the Netherlands.
"The best solution for the problem of foreign cannabis consumers who
visit our city just for the coffee shops, 43% of all visitors, is
that their governments take responsibility by creating a safe place
where people can buy their products without coming into contact with
the hard drugs," said Josemans. "In the meantime, we will relocate
some coffee shops to the outskirts of town especially for those
foreign coffee shop visitors."
Van Krista also suggested moving border town coffee shops to
non-tourist areas. "The people coming to the coffee shops aren't
coming to look at our beautiful cities but to go to the coffee
shops," she said, "so I think we should locate them in the outskirts
or in industrial zones."
As for the backdoor problem: "We need one transparent line of
production, consumption, and sale of cannabis," said Josemans.
"That's the only solution. By regulating our back door, we can
benefit from quality controls on cultivators and tax revenues like
the coffee shops. We cannot imagine that the soft drugs policy that
has been proven to work will be thrown overboard because some
politically in-charge moralists believe in a 'drug-free' world," Josemans said.
But while there is much talk within the national government about the
"coffee shop problem," by the terms of the accord they reached when
they took power in 2007, the coalition parties are bound not to
attempt to alter the status quo on the coffee shops during their term
in office, which ends in 2010. The accord was an attempt to gloss
over ideological differences between the parties, and the result was
that the only official national government position is a desire to
close down coffee shops within 250 meters of secondary schools. But
the only officials who can act to close coffee shops are municipal
authorities, and they are much less hostile than elements of the
"The government thus put the responsibility for the administration of
cannabis policies for the next few years at the local level," noted
Joep Oomen of the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug
Policies (ENCOD), who observes Dutch developments from nearby Antwerp, Belgium.
It is at that level, where officials have day-to-day experience
dealing with coffee shops and the issues around them, that support
for complete legalization is growing -- and it is growing in an
effort to find pragmatic solutions to the real problems around
Holland's half-baked cannabis policies. The ball really got rolling
last month, when the mayors of the southern border towns of
Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom announced they would close all the
shops in their cities because of the influx of foreigners. That led
the mayor of Eindhoven to announce a proposal for a municipal
cannabis garden to supply coffee shops in his city in a bid to reduce
the illicit cannabis trade that exists outside the coffee shop system
and causes many of the problems associated with foreign "drug tourism."
Those moves in turn led to the November 13 "Weed Summit," where the
30 most involved mayors called for a "simple and transparent policy,
including a legal system to supply the coffee shops that would be
carried out in coordination with European governments." This proposal
was also signed by the mayors of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom, whose
announcement of looming coffee house closures now appears more an
effort to goad policy-makers than a genuine intent to shut them down.
"Please note the difference here between announcing the shut down and
actually closing them down," said ENCOD's Oomen. "Roosendaal and
Bergen op Zoom just announced
that they will close all coffeeshops down, but we have to see how
that takes place in practice. Dutch administrative requirements are
famous for being heavily bureaucratized, so the owners have the
possibility to slow down this process," he noted.
The situation in Amsterdam, which garnered international press
service reports when Mayor Cohen announced he would close 20% of the
city's coffee shops because they are within the 250-meter school
zone, is similar, said Oomen. "The mayor has said he will not
effectively start closing until two years from now, not
coincidentally the year in which new elections will take place. Some
people see in the announcements of the mayors a way to force national
politicians to take a clear decision on this and not leave the
responsibility on them."
"Cohen threatened to close down well known coffee shops just to make
the discussion more clear," agreed van Krista. "This has really
helped clarify the discussion."
The mayors were also responding to recent rumblings from the
governing coalition about shutting down the coffee shops altogether.
On November 8, CDA leader Pieter van Geel announced he favored
closing down the coffee shops, prompting a quick rejection of that
idea by his coalition partners the PvdA, and spurring the mayors to act.
"That seems to be the case," said Sneller. "Remember that the mayors
are fueling the debate this year. We don't think the mayors are
responding with a sort of anti-restriction Pavlovian response, but
that they really believe regulation is the best course."
Perhaps, said Oomen, all of the scary noises from the Christians are
a good thing. "The
pressure from the right provokes the discussion, and in this
discussion, people almost automatically reach the conclusion that a
regulation is a much better option than total prohibition. It is
becoming more likely that a future Dutch government without the
Christian Democrats and without too heavy US or UN pressure will take
important steps towards regulation."
Last week, ENCOD, the Cannabis College, and the Dutch Drug Policy
Foundation tried to stoke the embers of reform with a Cannabis
Tribunal at the Hague. The tribunal challenged Dutch parties to
disprove the proposition that "Cannabis prohibition has more negative
effects than positive ones." The only politician who took up the
challenge was Cisca Joldersma, spokesperson for the CDA on drug
issues, who faced off against Hans van Duijn, former head of the
Dutch Police Association and a supporter of legalization. Joldersmas'
arguments, based solely on opinion without resort to evidence, were
deemed "without merit" by the judge of the tribunal, law professor
Hendreik Kaptain of Leiden University. The organizers concluded that
a parliamentary debate on cannabis prohibition is urgently needed, as
no Dutch political party can explain why it should be maintained.
And so it goes in Holland. Despite the bluster of some of its
members, the governing coalition is not going to touch cannabis
policy. That leaves the initiative in the hands of the mayors and
other interested parties -- at least until 2010, when the Dutch will
have the chance to replace an at best cannabis-neutral government
with a cannabis friendly one. Then, perhaps, that famous Dutch
gedoogbeleid can expand to encompass the entire cannabis complex.
Amsterdam to cut brothels by half
6 December 2008
Dutch authorities have revealed details of their plans to clean up
Amsterdam's famous red light district.
They say they will close half the city's brothels, sex shops and
marijuana cafes in a bid to drive organised crime from the city centre.
Council officials gave the sex industry a warning a year ago that
they were going to close some brothels.
The deputy mayor of Amsterdam says the plans will stop the city being
a "free zone" for criminals.
Last year the city said it wanted to close one-third of the red light
district's brothels, where scantily-clad prostitutes display
themselves in shop windows.
But the new measures aim to reduce the number of sex "windows" from
482 to 243, a council spokesman said.
Amsterdam also wants to close half of the 76 marijuana shops in the
City centre 'decay'
The city council says that some other businesses are also related to
the decay of the city centre, including peep shows, sex shows,
mini-supermarkets, phone and souvenir shops, and they will also be shut down.
It says there are indications that some red light businesses serve as
a cover for organised crime, including drugs and the trafficking of women.
"Money laundering, extortion and human trafficking are things you do
not see on the surface but they are hurting people and the city. We
want to fight this," said Deputy Mayor Lodewijk Asscher.
"We can still have sex and drugs but in a way that shows the city is
Officials have set aside some 39m euros (£33m) to bring back hotels,
boutiques, galleries and restaurants to the area.
'Tolerant and crazy'
The plans come just days after a national ban on hallucinogenic or
"magic mushrooms" from shops known as Smart Shops.
The BBC's correspondent in the Netherlands, Geraldine Coughlan, says
the latest plans go much further than had been expected.
Critics say the crackdown in Amsterdam is the latest example of a
hardening of the traditional liberal Dutch approach to social issues
including prostitution and soft drug use.
But Mr Asscher said that the changes would be more in line with
Amsterdam's image as a "tolerant and crazy place, rather than a free
zone for criminals".
"It will be a place with 200 windows (for prostitutes) and 30 coffee
shops, which you can't find anywhere else in the world - very
exciting, but also with cultural attractions," he said, adding: "And
you won't have to be embarrassed to say you came."
Prostitution will be allowed only in two areas in the district -
notably De Wallen, a web of streets and alleys around the city's
medieval retaining dam walls.
The area has been a centre of prostitution for hundreds of years.
Prostitution was legalised in the Netherlands in 2000, formalising a
Marijuana is technically illegal in the Netherlands, but prosecutors
will not press charges for possession of small amounts. Coffee shops
are able to sell it openly.