Not to Worry -- Concerns About Pot Coffee Houses in Amsterdam Have Gone up in Smoke

For more than 30 years under the policy of "gedoogbeleid," which could best be translated as "pragmatic tolerance," the Dutch have allowed the sale of personal amounts of marijuana through the coffee house system, even though doing so is technically illegal. But lately, especially for those of us on this side of the water, a black cloud appears to be hovering over the coffee shops. The number of coffee shops has contracted from about 1,500 in 1995 to 720 now, as successive governments have tightened the screws. The current national government is hostile, if somewhat divided on the issue, and recent headlines about moves to close coffee shops in some border towns and reduce their numbers across the country add to the ominous picture.

But the picture is nowhere near as gloomy as presented by the occasional Reuters or Associated Press report covering such developments. Dutch cannabis policy is approaching a tipping point, the status quo is under pressure, but the end result is more likely to be the creation of a vertically-integrated legal cannabis production and sales industry than the end of the coffee houses and retreat back into prohibition.

Three parties in coalition form the national government: the Social Democrats (PvdA), the Christian Democrats (CDA), and Christian Unity (CU), a fundamentalist Christian Party. The two Christian parties oppose drug use in general and the coffee shop system in particular, and would like to see it go away. But the most powerful party in the coalition, the Social Democrats, is much less hostile, and even amenable to regulating cannabis production as well as retail sales.

While the Christian parties appear implacable in their opposition on moral grounds, the PvdA and the opposition parties are arguing more pragmatically over a pair of issues that have come to symbolize the "problems" of the coffee shops. One is the endless influx of cannabis buyers from neighboring countries with more repressive laws, who clog the city centers of border towns and sometimes deal with hard drug dealers and create public nuisances as well. The other major issue around the coffee shops is the "backdoor problem," wherein, while retail sales at the coffee shops are tolerated, the wholesale supply of cannabis to the coffee shops remains tethered to a criminal netherworld.

"It is true that some problems have arisen around the coffee shops," said Joost Sneller, assistant to opposition DP66 Party MP Boris van der Ham, "but a lot of that has to do with vagueness surrounding cultivation, and not with the coffee shops themselves. The backdoor problem is only a problem because we make it so," Sneller argued. "There is one simple solution, and that is legalization of backdoor purchase and the regulation of the entire soft drugs chain. The selling of cannabis should be licensed," he said.

"The coffee shops are a good way to deal with soft drugs and regulate their sales," agreed Velzen van Krista, an opposition Socialist Party MP. "The coffee shop system definitely ensures that people who buy soft drugs don't get mixed up with hard drug sellers."

While the coffee shops are a good interim measure, the best approach would be to simply regulate the whole trade, said van Krista. "Our people don't use soft drugs at a higher rate than surrounding countries, and since it is being used anyway and making it illegal doesn't help, we might as well just legalize it," she argued. "That would create legal jobs, taxable income, quality control, even jobs in security work, because there is a lot of dough in growing."

Marc Josemans, a coffee shop proprietor since 1983, is president of the Maastricht coffee shop association, representing all 14 coffee shops in the border city. The Maastricht association is one of eight regional associations, all of which are organized into the national coffees shop association, LOC, which represents about a third of all coffee shops in the Netherlands.

"The best solution for the problem of foreign cannabis consumers who visit our city just for the coffee shops, 43% of all visitors, is that their governments take responsibility by creating a safe place where people can buy their products without coming into contact with the hard drugs," said Josemans. "In the meantime, we will relocate some coffee shops to the outskirts of town especially for those foreign coffee shop visitors."

Van Krista also suggested moving border town coffee shops to non-tourist areas. "The people coming to the coffee shops aren't coming to look at our beautiful cities but to go to the coffee shops," she said, "so I think we should locate them in the outskirts or in industrial zones."

As for the backdoor problem: "We need one transparent line of production, consumption, and sale of cannabis," said Josemans. "That's the only solution. By regulating our back door, we can benefit from quality controls on cultivators and tax revenues like the coffee shops. We cannot imagine that the soft drugs policy that has been proven to work will be thrown overboard because some politically in-charge moralists believe in a 'drug-free' world," Josemans said.

But while there is much talk within the national government about the "coffee shop problem," by the terms of the accord they reached when they took power in 2007, the coalition parties are bound not to attempt to alter the status quo on the coffee shops during their term in office, which ends in 2010. The accord was an attempt to gloss over ideological differences between the parties, and the result was that the only official national government position is a desire to close down coffee shops within 250 meters of secondary schools. But the only officials who can act to close coffee shops are municipal authorities, and they are much less hostile than elements of the governing coalition.

"The government thus put the responsibility for the administration of cannabis policies for the next few years at the local level," noted Joep Oomen of the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), who observes Dutch developments from nearby Antwerp, Belgium.

It is at that level, where officials have day-to-day experience dealing with coffee shops and the issues around them, that support for complete legalization is growing -- and it is growing in an effort to find pragmatic solutions to the real problems around Holland's half-baked cannabis policies. The ball really got rolling last month, when the mayors of the southern border towns of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom announced they would close all the shops in their cities because of the influx of foreigners. That led the mayor of Eindhoven to announce a proposal for a municipal cannabis garden to supply coffee shops in his city in a bid to reduce the illicit cannabis trade that exists outside the coffee shop system and causes many of the problems associated with foreign "drug tourism."

Those moves in turn led to the November 13 "Weed Summit," where the 30 most involved mayors called for a "simple and transparent policy, including a legal system to supply the coffee shops that would be carried out in coordination with European governments." This proposal was also signed by the mayors of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom, whose announcement of looming coffee house closures now appears more an effort to goad policy-makers than a genuine intent to shut them down.

"Please note the difference here between announcing the shut down and actually closing them down," said ENCOD's Oomen. "Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom just announced

that they will close all coffeeshops down, but we have to see how that takes place in practice. Dutch administrative requirements are famous for being heavily bureaucratized, so the owners have the possibility to slow down this process," he noted.

The situation in Amsterdam, which garnered international press service reports when Mayor Cohen announced he would close 20% of the city's coffee shops because they are within the 250-meter school zone, is similar, said Oomen. "The mayor has said he will not effectively start closing until two years from now, not coincidentally the year in which new elections will take place. Some people see in the announcements of the mayors a way to force national politicians to take a clear decision on this and not leave the responsibility on them."

"Cohen threatened to close down well known coffee shops just to make the discussion more clear," agreed van Krista. "This has really helped clarify the discussion."

The mayors were also responding to recent rumblings from the governing coalition about shutting down the coffee shops altogether. On November 8, CDA leader Pieter van Geel announced he favored closing down the coffee shops, prompting a quick rejection of that idea by his coalition partners the PvdA, and spurring the mayors to act.

"That seems to be the case," said Sneller. "Remember that the mayors are fueling the debate this year. We don't think the mayors are responding with a sort of anti-restriction Pavlovian response, but that they really believe regulation is the best course."

Perhaps, said Oomen, all of the scary noises from the Christians are a good thing. "The

pressure from the right provokes the discussion, and in this discussion, people almost automatically reach the conclusion that a regulation is a much better option than total prohibition. It is becoming more likely that a future Dutch government without the Christian Democrats and without too heavy US or UN pressure will take important steps towards regulation."

Last week, ENCOD, the Cannabis College, and the Dutch Drug Policy Foundation tried to stoke the embers of reform with a Cannabis Tribunal at the Hague. The tribunal challenged Dutch parties to disprove the proposition that "Cannabis prohibition has more negative effects than positive ones." The only politician who took up the challenge was Cisca Joldersma, spokesperson for the CDA on drug issues, who faced off against Hans van Duijn, former head of the Dutch Police Association and a supporter of legalization. Joldersmas' arguments, based solely on opinion without resort to evidence, were deemed "without merit" by the judge of the tribunal, law professor Hendreik Kaptain of Leiden University. The organizers concluded that a parliamentary debate on cannabis prohibition is urgently needed, as no Dutch political party can explain why it should be maintained.

And so it goes in Holland. Despite the bluster of some of its members, the governing coalition is not going to touch cannabis policy. That leaves the initiative in the hands of the mayors and other interested parties -- at least until 2010, when the Dutch will have the chance to replace an at best cannabis-neutral government with a cannabis friendly one. Then, perhaps, that famous Dutch gedoogbeleid can expand to encompass the entire cannabis complex.

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