The Netherlands has long been an almost mythical Mecca for cannabis users the world over. However, in this small, liberal European country, cannabis remains a controlled substance (with large-scale dealing, production, importing and exporting prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law). On the flip side, the country’s gedoogbeleid, or tolerance policy, means that possession of up to five grams of cannabis for personal use and the cultivation of up to five plants are not prosecuted. More significantly for foreign visitors, the cultivation and sale of marijuana through the Netherlands’ roughly 700 cannabis-selling coffee shops is decriminalized. Even to cannabis connoisseurs in today’s decrim California, the allure of a place where people can publicly sit around enjoying some of the world’s finest, just as you might a beer or a coffee, is considerable, and many make a Netherlands pot pilgrimage at least once.
If you’ve been considering a trip to the Netherlands’ legendary coffee shops it might be the time to accelerate those plans. In December, the European Court of Justice ruled that the southern Dutch city of Maastricht was within its rights when it passed a 2005 law barring foreigners from cafes that sell marijuana (the owner of a coffee shop in that city had challenged the law). “That restriction is justified by the objective of combating drug tourism and the accompanying public nuisance,” the court said (the governments of the Netherlands’ neighbors–Belgium, Germany and France–have linked Dutch “drug tourism” to public order problems within their borders). This ruling means that other Dutch cities, or indeed the Netherlands on a national level, could outright ban foreigners from cannabis coffee shops.
Dutch cities that introduce a wietpas (“weed card”) would be gambling that the loss of revenue from canna-tourism would be more than offset by the reduction in social problems it causes and/or a boost in income from tourists who might otherwise have been discouraged from visiting the country because of its reputation as a marijuana destination. “It is possible that a decision to introduce the ‘weed card’ will reduce the number of foreign tourists who choose [capital city] Amsterdam or the Netherlands as a destination for a stay,” according to the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions. “But a less liberal policy might also attract new tourists.”
The potential impact of the European Court’s ruling on Dutch tourism is more nuanced than just numbers, says Altan Arsan, president of Artun Travel, Inc. in Chicago and a 25-year veteran of the travel business. “I believe that this ruling will have an impact on the number of tourists traveling to the Netherlands, but not so much of an impact on the tourism dollars going to the Netherlands. Tourists who are mainly traveling to Amsterdam or the Netherlands solely to smoke marijuana tend to be younger, college-aged travelers who do not spend much while on vacation. They do not stay in major hotels, they are mostly backpackers.”
While foreign visitors might interpret the introduction of the Dutch wietpas as intolerant, in reality the country’s history of gedoogbeleid will doubtless soften the impact of any further Maastricht-like legislation.
“I think that a small percentage of tourists may see this as discrimination. But knowing how loose the Dutch can be with their laws regarding ‘soft’ drugs and prostitution, I doubt that this law will be strictly enforced,” says Arsan. “I can see making tourists pay an extra fee to become a ‘member’ of a coffee shop to enter, but I do not foresee this law being enforced very strongly. I am nearly certain [that] there will be a loophole of some sort.”
’DAM GOOD CUP OF COFFEE
Despite the Netherlands’ progressive attitudes toward cannabis (its tolerance policy prompts 3.66 million visitors annually), there are rules that Dutch coffee houses must follow. These include:
–Licensed coffee shops cannot sell alcohol.
–Advertising is not allowed.
–No sales to anyone under the age of 18.
–No shops within a radius of 250 meters of schools.
By Paul Rogers
Article Originally Published in Culture Magazine