Back in the 90’s, whilst in my late teens, I took the short flight from London to Amsterdam to meet up with other UK buddies. After arriving at Central Station, we walked a couple of hundred metres and ended up in the Grasshopper coffeeshop which stood just over a bridge at the entrance of the red light area.
Under neon lights and trippy paintings of grasshoppers merged with semi clad females in pin-up poses, we asked for the menu and ordered our first “legal” weed. If I remember correctly, though my memory is a little hazy to say the least, I bought a gram of bubblegum and my friend ordered a gram of AK47. We smoked these as we waited for the others. Within a very short space of time, we were crying with laughter. Thus started a surreal weekend of wandering from one coffeeshop to another, sampling the delights that they had to offer.
The Grey Area
A common misconception is that cannabis is legal in the Netherlands. It is actually decriminalised, with certain restrictions.
It is not a criminal offense to carry up to 5 grams of cannabis (dried flowers or resin) on your person. Up to this amount can be bought in a coffeeshop. Coffeeshops have restrictions too. Customers must be over 18, they must not hold more than 500 grams on the premises, and new zoning laws restrict where they can be located. As far as coffeeshops go, that’s where the tolerance ends.
It is tolerated for cannabis users to grow up to 5 plants for personal use. It is a criminal offense for anyone to grow more than 5 plants at a time. That’s where things start to unravel. Such a low limit on growing means it’s impossible to “legally” grow enough to keep a coffeeshop in stock.
The Green Area
The last few years have seen less tolerance for growers. The government has said that they are targeting commercial grows, but increasingly small time growers are being caught in the dragnet.
They are easy to find, bust and process. It used to be the case that the local coffeeshops were supplied by multiple small time growers who would lovingly care for their plants producing, you could argue, an artisanal product. If that had been left to flourish, you can only imagine the implications this would have to the cannabis economy in Holland.
Nowadays, small time commercial grows are not worth the risk and the void is filled with larger criminal players seeking to profit rather than producing for the love of the plant. To grow a cash crop your goals are different. You are aiming for weight and bag appeal. Lead helps boost the weight and ground glass gives buds the shimmer. Neither of which are the kind of thing that you would like to put in your body.
Built on Shaky Legal Ground
Imagine if buying a loaf of bread was tolerated and shops were allowed to bake and sell bread, but no one was allowed to provide them with flour. This invites an opportunity for black market opportunists. The demand for your daily bread still exists, but who knows what the history of the flour that went in it is, whether it was cut with some other product or even if it is flour at all. In an imaginary illegal flour market, there is no authority to make spot checks.
As everything has to exist outside the law, growers are targeted not only by the police, but also serious criminals ready to steal their valuable crop. The high value of which is a byproduct of being grown under such risky conditions.
Minority of Misfits
Another misconception is that everyone is Holland wants to get high. This is far from the truth. Holland is a predominantly conservative country run by right leaning political parties with a tough on crime swagger. Their pragmatic approach to decriminalising drugs has resulted in cannabis use being amongst one of the lowest in Europe. Cannabis users in Holland are seen by the majority to be a minority of misfits.
On top of all this there are tobacco smoking bans that have come into effect across Europe. A popular way of smoking joints in Europe is to mix with tobacco. This is great for non-smokers such as myself, but makes it harder for other people to stay and enjoy their cannabis on the premises.
Meaning people are forced outside where they are accused of disturbing the neighbourhood, putting the closing of coffeeshops high on some people’s agendas.
Maastricht, a town on a landlocked peninsular that juts out of southern Holland into Germany and Belgium, has gone as far as banning the sale to anyone who does not reside in the town.
To combat the issue of cannabis tourists dropping in from neighbouring countries, clogging up the roads and spending little in the town other than to buy their weed, the mayor had proposed a scheme which translates as the “weed pass”.
Under this scheme people had to register with a coffeeshop in order to buy from it. The Dutch are protective of their privacy and the idea was not popular. In the end, it was overturned as it was ruled against the Dutch constitution.
Now, in Maastricht they check everyone’s IDs as they enter a coffeeshop, leaving any “cannabis tourists” out in the cold. They cannot even buy a coffee. The easy-going coffeeshop atmosphere has evaporated as a result.
Adriaan, who lived all his life in Maastricht, told me he once visited a coffeeshop and had forgotten his ID card. He was asked to leave. Then his friend was also asked to leave, despite having his ID, on the basis that he might buy it for Adriaan.
According to reports, street dealers have increased to fill the gap. According to Adriaan, these guys don’t just sell cannabis and are not choosy on the age of their customers.
The Death of the Coffeeshop?
Nothing is more profound than walking into a cosy establishment and looking at their menu of various dried cannabis flowers or hashish, and buying it and smoking there and then whilst enjoying a nice cup of tea, coffee, or fruit juice. It gives you a great sense of liberty.
However, as mentioned above, the foundations for this concept are not sound. Things are starting to crumble.
There is resistance, Amsterdam is still home to some of the best places to consume cannabis in the world. The famous Greenhouse Coffeeshop or Barnies Farm are two that immediately spring to mind. They sell their own strains at a premium as they are also seed companies and have a perception of quality to uphold.
The Mayor of Amsterdam fought the proposed weed pass system that was first rolled out in Maastricht, as he knew it will have a negative effect on tourist figures. Let’s face it, without cannabis, Amsterdam is not that appealing; it’s expensive, the food is not fantastic and there is a high chance of rain. I’m not talking about a light shower; this is cold, your-travel-brolly-is-not-going-to-help-here rain, lashing down from the North sea. If you ever visit Amsterdam be sure to buy a good waterproof jacket, preferably of Norwegian origin.
The number of coffeeshops in Amsterdam has reduced significantly in recent years as the city gentrifies and cleans up its image. Coffeeshops are as quintessentially a part of the Netherlands as tulips and bicycles so it would be a terrible shame for them to disappear. Unfortunately, the current political climate is creating conditions for a best case scenario of a poor quality product; and at worst, cannabis adulterated with dangerous substances posing a hazard to consumer health.
For a cannabis consumer, this situation is frustrating to watch. The answer of a pan-European legalization is so blindingly obvious and it would solve many of these ailments. For the moment the political will to do so is lacking and it is not a hot issue for the majority of the general public.
The Netherlands have blazed a trail for the cannabis industry as we know it. It might not be the death of coffeeshops, but they not in the best of health.