CannaWorld Amsterdam's Policy of Tolerance Up in Smoke?

Story by Matt Wild

Although the Netherlands’ capital of Amsterdam is widely considered a cannabis haven where you can get your favorite marijuana strain to go along with your morning coffee, over the years laws have shut down hundreds of these coffee shops. In contrast the US is moving to become more open towards cannabis by legalizing both recreational and medicinal cannabis use in more and more states.  This is making it simpler and reduces the risk to acquire cannabis whether for medicinal or recreational purposes.  This is in stark contrast to the policies of either nation 20 years ago.

The Netherlands government has basically turned a blind eye toward cannabis sales and use since 1976, when it established the gedoogbeleid (translation: policy of tolerance) which decriminalizes cannabis. Under this policy, the national government categorized cannabis in all its forms, as well as hallucinogenic mushrooms, as a “soft drug” and considered it legal to possess or sell in small amounts.  The government views soft drugs as a public health issue, much akin to smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol, where the choice to use is left up to the individual. Whereas those categorized as hard drugs such as cocaine, heroin, LSD,  and morphine are strictly forbidden.  In regards to cannabis, the government would not prosecute for growing up to 5 plants or possession of less than 5 grams of marijuana.   This policy has allowed several hundred coffee shops to sprout up selling small amounts of cannabis to customers 21 or over. The Netherlands was the first country to do so, which resulted in drug tourism, notably in Amsterdam.  That was decades ago…..

However, today, unlike the movement toward mass legalization in the US, lawmakers in the Netherlands, who have become increasingly more conservative in recent times, are starting to crack down on cannabis use and move toward a zero tolerance policy.  In 2012 a policy known as the “weed pass” or “cannabis card” was instituted in the Netherlands in an attempt to reduce drug tourism and any associated criminal activity. The concept of the pass was to allow local citizens to continue to partake in cannabis at the coffeeshops that provide it, but to discriminate against any non-residents or tourists and forbid them from entering coffee shops that provide cannabis to customers.  There were many strong advocates against the weed pass from the start, and some coffeeshops even defied the law and continued to serve tourists.  However, the rebellious coffeeshops were soon met with police raids.

Although the weed pass was designed to reduce crime it actually caused the opposite effect.  Tourists from around the world were showing up in Amsterdam to get stoned in the renowned cannabis friendly coffee shops but were instead rejected leaving them to turn to the street seeking cannabis from criminal sources.  Many local residents also refused to have their name entered into a database to register for the weed pass and instead turned to criminal dealers as well. In November 2012, the same year the policy was put into effect, the weed pass was declared a failure and subsequently scrapped.

The current movement towards intolerance may have partly been driven by pressure from surrounding countries, such as France who has recently brought sanctions against the Netherlands for supposedly violating international treaties regarding drug laws. The government is now also considering reclassifying marijuana strains with more than 15% THC as a hard drug, thereby increasing criminal penalties.  Additionally they have recently declared that anyone who grows marijuana using electric grow lights, “selected” seeds (that produce only female plants), ventilation, or special soil is considered a professional grower, which means they risk high criminal penalties. They can even be evicted from the government-provided housing which accommodates more than half of the citizens of the Netherlands. This new policy, which had intended to reduce recreational cannabis use and any associated trafficking, has ultimately backfired which has resulted in coffee shops seeking illicit sources for their cannabis, most of which is grown in shipping containers that are buried underground. As such, the quality of their products have decreased, while price has increased. Additionally since possession is just tolerated, but not regulated by the government, buyers cannot be assured that the cannabis they buy is free of mold or heavy pesticides.

As a result of the changing laws and policies more than 350 out of the 1000 shops countrywide have closed their doors for good due to their loss of business. The city of Amsterdam has lost a third of its coffee shops, which has had a negative effect on their cannabis related tourism.

Due to the tightening of cannabis laws and policies, Netherlands activists are lobbying the government to adopt a US model of dealing with cannabis where possession of cannabis is now fully legal in 4 US states (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington).  The proposed model would include legalization and full regulation. This would allow consumers to be guaranteed that they are buying high quality cannabis, while taking business away from the current illicit sellers. It also would have the added benefit of helping to grow the economy through increased drug tourism.

If the Netherlands adopt cannabis regulations that are similar to the US, they will likely return to the cannabis heaven they are so famous for. They already have very progressive regulations when it comes to medicinal use of cannabis. It can be legally prescribed by any doctor nationwide and obtained through pharmacies. There is a set of approved qualifying medical conditions, but doctors have the liberty to prescribe cannabis for a condition not listed if they believe it will help the patient’s symptoms, especially if other medications have not worked for them or have very negative side effects. In contrast, multiple US states have not approved medical marijuana for any condition, and those states that have approved it have a strict list of qualifying conditions for which cannabis can be prescribed. If the Netherlands continues to tighten their grip on cannabis regulations and the US continues to push towards full legalization, perhaps, all of the marijuana based tourism once enjoyed by the Netherlands will soon shift to one of the many locations in the US where it is now more legal than it has ever been in Amsterdam.