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Holland Election Leaves Up in the Air the Question of "Weed Pass" and the Future of Dutch Coffee Shops for Tourists

The next Dutch prime minister is a strong proponent of the restrictive "weed pass," but implementing it will be an uphill battle.

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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. 

 
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