Holland Election Leaves Up in the Air the Question of "Weed Pass" and the Future of Dutch Coffee Shops for Tourists
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If the center-left Labor Party PvdA had won, or the Socialists, who made pot legalization a centerpiece of their campaign, there would be no question about the future of the world-famous Dutch coffeeshops, at least in the short term, and their ability to serve pot to visitors to Holland.
But alas, the conservative leader Mark Rutte will be the next Dutch prime minister. Rutte's free-market VVD party won 41 seats in Parliament, versus 38 for the Labor Party, which came in second. The VVD is a strong proponent of what's known as the "weed pass," a bit of Dutch legislation that would restrict the sale of marijuana to registered Dutch citizens.
The trial run of the weed pass, beginning last spring in the south of the country, near the borders of Belgium and Germany, was aimed at tourists who travel into Holland and make a mess of things, as a result of their pot-smoking. The rest of the plan, which would affect Amsterdam and create private clubs for pot-smokers --with tourists excluded -- is due to be implemented at the end of the year.
But even though the center-right VVD, the party that introduced the weed pass system, won the election this past Wednesday, the pass still might not be implemented on January 1, when it’s set to go into effect across the Netherlands. Rutte will have to put together a coalition to govern, and since the election margins are so slim, it's unclear who will be part of it.
The 150 seats of Parliament have been split up based on the vote, and now, as dictated by the Dutch system, the VVD must form a coalition with other parties. Generally, the more parties in a ruling coalition, the more voices need to be heard, the more compromises need to be made, and the harder it becomes to govern effectively. Therefore many are expecting that the VVD will choose the PvdA as their allies in order to control 79 seats without having too many opinions—parties in the coalition—to contend with. Though VVD also won the last elections in 2010, the coalition it formed was with the CDA, a Christian Democratic party, which tends to go right on social issues, and the PVV, an anti-Muslim, far-right group headed by the infamous Geert Wilders. Both groups supported the weed pass, and both lost significant seats in this election. If either end up in the ruling coalition, they will not have the same power as they did in the previous, more right-wing government. Overall, of the 150 members elected to Parliament, 77 are for the weed pass, while 73 are against.
Still, there was a festive effort to build support against the weed pass in Holland, including the Cannabus’ national tour of Holland, with its cartoon mascot “Uncle Dam." The campaign against the weed pass got strong support by the more than 200 coffeeshops in Amsterdam in a city of less than a million, which sell marijuana—for consumption on premises—in shops blasting early-'90s Snoop Doggy Dogg and the best of Sublime. The coffeeshops, which have been around since the 1970s. are prime destinations for college backpackers, European tours and British stag parties.
But even though the weed pass may still get the boot, this isn’t exactly the outcome marijuana advocates were looking for. In Amsterdam, before the election, coalitions of coffeeshops had papered the city with everything from signs urging, “Don’t let your vote go up in smoke” to lighters and packets of joint filters emblazoned with “Ga Kiezen” (roughly, “Go Choose”). But the Socialist Party (SP), which was supported by many of these advocates, won only 15 seats. More than to simply get rid of the pass, they wanted full legalization, not just toleration, the government’s current position on soft drugs. But with full legalization off the table for now, Dutch marijuana supporters are focused on showing just how ineffective, and potentially dangerous, the weed-pass system could be.
The way policies are currently written makes it admissible for customers to buy marijuana and for clerks to sell it, but not for the shops to buy their wares or to grow the weed themselves. The front door is legal, but the back is underground. Besides being insanely counterintuitive, the system means that there is no one to regulate the quality or THC content of the pot. Coffeeshops are discouraged from testing and labeling the drugs they are selling with this information.
“On a bottle of liquor, you have to say what the alcohol content is,” explains Woody Van Der Heijden, a manager of Barney’s, a trendy set of four coffeeshop-themed establishments on a block of the capital’s Jordaan neighborhood. “On a pack of cigarettes, you have to say how much nicotine, carbon monoxide, and tar is in them. But if you tell people how much THC is in pot, that’s advertising.”
And advertising is strictly against the coffeeshop rules.
“The weed pass wouldn’t just be horrible for the Amsterdam economy,” says a manager at Abraxis, a popular destination in the tourist-packed Centrum neighborhood, who declined to give his name though he was echoing the worries of many others in the industry. “Hotels, souvenir stores, head shops—everyone would lose business. And the coffeeshops would lose, too.”
The few locals who come to coffeeshops in the city center, about 10 to 20 percent of their business, usually buy the pot they want and leave. They take it home to smoke, ignoring the drinks, paraphernalia and trinkets—high markup items—that help keep the coffeeshops afloat.
In Maastricht, a city in the far south of the Netherlands that implemented the weed pass system on May 1 of this year, these concerns are ringing true. “Staff at the coffeeshops are getting fired,” says Van Der Heijden. “Everything is suffering—snack bars, even the city council is losing money on parking meters.” Not only are tourists from nearby countries no longer interested in visiting the small Dutch city, the residents are reluctant to put their name on any official list of marijuana users.
Maastricht has been monitoring the results of the weed pass and they’re not looking good—marijuana sales haven’t disappeared, just gone to the streets. But just as this city was where the weed pass system originated, it may be where it falls apart, too: just last week, the mayor announced he was trying to pull back on the regulations, saying that just proof of age and local residency, even without registration, will be enough for purchase. If that doesn’t work to get the economy in the southern cities back on track (there were 1.4 million “drug tourists” in Maastricht alone in 2010) they will have to reassess the whole approach. And, hopefully, the PvdA will be close enough to help form a new one.
Elisabeth Garber-Paul is a freelance writer now living in Amsterdam.