Dutch Conservatives Crack Down on Coffee Shops

For international travelers, Amsterdam has long served as a kind of nirvana. Considered a forward-thinking capital light years ahead of the rest of the world, much of the city's exceptional status is due to its coffee shops -- essentially marijuana bars -- where smoking pot is perfectly legal. Coupled with other liberal sex and drug laws that have ensured a level of tolerance no European city can rival, Amsterdam has acted for many as a role model of what an enlightened 21st-century city should be.

But things aren't always what they seem. In recent years the Netherlands, like many countries around the world, has witnessed a rise in conservative power and, with that, a corresponding tightening of its once-famous looseness. The legendary Dutch credo "anything goes" is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its coffee shops.

The signs began to appear back in 2004, when the Dutch government consented to ban smoking in public -- a measure fiercely resisted by coffee shops fearing they'd take the biggest hit. The government quickly U-turned, bowing to pressure from the hotel and catering industry, and lifted the ban "indefinitely," giving the industry time to exhale. Marijuana retailers, always considered a separate sector, were quickly made exempt, and within days it was back to lighting up as usual.

While the uproar settled and coffee shops seemingly avoided extinction, their existence continues to be silently and systematically stubbed out. Those who flock to the Netherlands seeking its unique tourist niche may not know it, but new coffee shop licenses are rarely issued, and strict regulations have further curbed existing numbers. Closed shops go unreplaced, and the overall number continues to dwindle, dropping from 1,500 nationwide to roughly 737 today. Amsterdam, once the Wild West of the European drug trade, has 250 shops where it once had 800.

"You have to think three times about everything you do. It's getting worse every year," says Ferry Hansen, owner of Get A Life coffee shop in Amsterdam. Hansen, who has been in the business for 14 years, has seen government policies tighten as once vague laws, set in place for years, have become rigorously enforced. "The government is trying to control more and more. If you follow the law, they can't say anything, but in the long run, they'll probably get what they want."

Much of the push towards more stringent control can be attributed to the Christian Democrats (CDA), the most powerful party in the Dutch coalition government, which went on the offensive as soon as it won elections in 2002. Headed by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, a devout Christian who blamed growing juvenile drug use on the cannabis industry -- even though the minimum legal age to enter a coffee shop is 18 -- the CDA immediately promoted a "zero option" on tolerance. "This is not a battle we're going to win overnight," Marcel Maer, a CDA spokesman told Britain's Sunday Times just days after the election. "But we will chip away at the coffee shops, greatly reducing their number over the next two years until hopefully we can get rid of them altogether."

Many of the regulations the government now enforces were actually established in 1996 in an effort to standardize the industry, which had developed from being reasonably discreet in the late 1970s to unrestrained in the late 1980s. It was then, at the height of ecstasy consumption, that a number of coffee shops peddled both hard and soft drugs, bucking the division of markets they purported to support. Bowing to international pressure, the Netherlands began restricting coffee shop numbers, working in tandem with the Bond van Cannabis Detaillisten, a union of organized coffee shop owners who agreed -- much to their commercial advantage -- that their numbers should be halved and remaining licenses be made nontransferable.

But it wasn't until the CDA tried to reign in coffee shops that these laws were heavily enforced. They include making it illegal to label lighters, rolling papers or display cannabis leaves -- all considered active advertising, limiting businesses to 500 grams of inventory, capping customer purchases to 5 grams per day, and banning businesses within 500 meters of a school. So if a new school pops up, the coffee shop can be closed without warning.

Additionally, in 2003 the BIBOB (an Act for the Promotion of Integrity Evaluations by Public Government) laws were introduced, targeting the entire service industry (including prostitutes) to prevent organized crime from getting involved. A special task force was created to enforce the laws by making random raids on coffee shops, "usually busting in like a bunch of cowboys," notes Hansen, to search staff and customers, and verify all of the required paperwork -- license, fire inspection records, chamber of commerce registration, rental contract, photocopied staff identification, and more. "If one side of this ID isn't photocopied, that's a fine and you're closed for a week," says Hansen, fingering an ID while flipping through a white folder as thick a telephone directory. "Make a second mistake, you're closed for two weeks. Make a third mistake, and you're closed permanently."

But while some owners balk at the government muscling in, others like Henry Dekker, owner of Republiek, Siberie and de Supermarkt coffee shops in Amsterdam, thinks regulations have formalized the market positively. "The government wants to clean it up so only the best businesses stay. This is a competitive market -- so if you're not good, no business," he says, rolling a hash joint as he speaks.

Dekker has been in the business for 20 years and believes owners influence policy more than politicians: By earning a record of professional behavior, they actually increase their bargaining rights. In Dekker's case, this has panned out. He's opening a new coffee shop in neighboring Mijdrecht, a conservative community that advertised for one to help settle their problems with drug trafficking on the street. "We're normalizing the trade, selling herbs just like we did in the Golden Age," says Dekker. "We're a normal business with a quality product, and we've been acknowledged for doing our job and doing it well."

But job appreciation is not something doled out equally. "I'm more negative," says another coffee shop owner, who wishes to remain anonymous and whose business has been in the family since the early 1980s. "It's a lot more aggressive. For a few weeks after a raid, we're left shocked and intimidated. We're just doing our job, but everything is sealed off, we're treated like criminals and told to put our arms up. We follow the rules, there's no reason to come in this way," the owner says. "At times I feel like quitting, so I won't have to be a part of this ridiculousness. Whether you're a smoker or not, this is a relaxing place and 60 percent of what we sell isn't weed -- it's bread or sandwiches. We shouldn't be treated this way."

No matter how responsible they are, coffee shop owners are marginalized because their industry has never gained full legal status. While liberal Dutch drug policy makes a distinction between marijuana and hard drugs (like heroin and cocaine), all drugs are considered illegal -- even though, paradoxically, using them is not. As a result, inconsistent law forbids owners from bringing marijuana through the back door -- they could be arrested buying their inventory, even though they are allowed to sell it through the front door.

"If you get into trouble, the bottom line is, it's a prohibited, unregulated product associated with the drug industry," says Kristie Szalanski, a staff member at Amsterdam's Cannabis College, a nonprofit foundation devoted to educating the public on weed. She notes that pubs where alcohol is sold are never raided. "This means that technically, coffee shop owners are criminals." An oversight the government makes, of course, when collecting taxes.

Due to this paradox, over the last few years the CDA itself has taken a confusing position on weed legislation. In 2003, the government legalized medical marijuana sold at pharmacies, yet backtracked two years later when the system fell into financial chaos -- mostly because patients preferred buying their stash at coffee shops. Then in 2004, Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner urged the government to ban local marijuana, claiming THC levels were too potent. Donner further suggested banning coffee shops from serving foreigners -- a move tantamount to saying only Brits can enter British pubs -- which quickly provoked international outrage. The politician continued taking a hard line on soft drugs, attempting to bring Dutch drug policy in line with the European Union, until he resigned a few weeks ago due to a damning report that pointed to his responsibility in the deaths of 11 refugees in a fire while being detained at Schiphol Airport.

While Donner may no longer be on the scene, the Dutch government's desire to subdue coffee shops has much to do with appeasing folks like Jacques Chirac, whose country, according to a survey by the French Observatory of Drugs and Drug Use, boasts the largest number of teenage cannabis consumers in Europe. Sweden, too, has taken the hard line, and of course there's America, which seeks to impose prohibition on the rest of the world through its war on drugs. But maybe it should start at home. According to the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 36.9 percent of Americans have tried cannabis versus 17 percent in the Netherlands.

For the foreseeable future, coffee shops will continue to exist, but are likely to keep diminishing in number. "The way Dutch policy works, it would take at least 60 years or more before they disappeared," jokes Dekker. Most owners would agree it's a slow-moving boat that would face an arduous fight with popular sentiment. "In Holland, the population knows the system's working," he says. Still, for now, the CDA, which chose not to respond to this reporter's questions, keeps pushing for lower numbers. "With every election it's an issue. You don't know how politicians are going to react," cautions Hansen. With upcoming Dutch elections in November, the next majority party, however conservative, might choose to take a softer line. Or things could change overnight -- much as they did in the United States when the Patriot Act was passed curtailing free speech, a right that had been fought for and claimed for over two centuries.

"I don't know how long [my shop] will exist," says Hansen. "I could be in business for five years or 25 years. But I really don't know for sure."

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