The Good News for Pot Tourists in Amsterdam Is Less Clear Than Originally Thought

Fans of Amsterdam’s lax marijuana policy rejoiced last week when the city’s mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, announced that “coffeeshops”—establishments where adults can buy, smoke, and otherwise ingest marijuana—would remain open to the public in 2013. His statement, in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, came after the new coalition government announced that they would be scrapping the plans for the controversial weedpass system. Set to go into effect across the nation on January 1, 2013, the program would restrict access to these marijuana-selling establishments to residents who registered with the local municipalities. The system, which had been planned and partially implemented by the previous, conservative government, had been introduced to three southern provinces earlier this year, to mixed results: while the number of German and Belgian “drug tourists” in those areas has gone down, street crime has gone up and marijuana has become more available to minors, two of the consequences anti-weedpass activists had warned against.

Unfortunately, things are not as clear-cut as many would have hoped: it seems that van der Lann may have “spoken out of turn,” as Michael Veling, the spokesman for the Dutch Cannabis Retailers Association, told the New York Times on Thursday. While the plans to set up a registry and issue passes has been ditched, the agreement still leaves tourists in a grey area, as the English-language site explains:

'The wietpas will go but entrance to coffee shops will be restricted to residents with ID or a residency permit and a local council statement of residency,’ the coalition agreement published on Monday afternoon states.

However, the coalition agreement goes on to say that determining how this residency requirement is applied will be done ‘in discussion with the local councils concerned and if necessary phased in’. This will allow a tailor-made approach per locality, the agreement states.

The Dutch Justice Ministry—who seem to be channeling the American DOJ’s approach to marijuana policy—told Reuters that the law is still in the works, and despite the Mayor’s announcement, they are still working on what the law will look like. "The coalition agreement says that tourists will be banned from coffee shops in the whole country," a spokeswoman told the news agency on Friday. "What accommodation there will be for local requirements has not yet been finalized."

When the conservative government that had proposed the weed pass system fell earlier this year, Dutch marijuana advocates hoped one of the more liberal parities would win September’s general election, and therefore get to form the next governing coalition for the nation. In the end, the same ruling party, the conservative VVD, won the majority of the parliamentary seats, but this time by a slim margin—the labor party came in a close second and, as expected, it looks like those two will form the next ruling government. But if this agreement about the weed pass—which is part of the process of forming the new coalition—is any indication, then the VVD is might be willing to budge on some of its more hard-lined policies. (Though it’s probably safe to say that, compared to immigration or austerity measures, this is an easy compromise.)

For large cities in the Netherlands, including Rotterdam, Utrecht, and the Hague, a tourist ban could have some negative consequences; but for Amsterdam, the problem would not just be a loss of revenue or a decrease in tourism, but a halt to important developments the city: As Andrew Bender recently pointed out in Forbes, some officials fear that it would mean a step back for notorious neighborhoods that have, in recent years, become more attractive to well-off locals and a different strata of tourism

Amsterdam credits the coffeehouse system, in part, with cleaning up neighborhoods where illicit sales once reigned, such as the historic enclaves of Zeedijk and De Wallen. “The city council, the police and the residents have been busy 20 years to reclaim that area,” Van der Laan said. If the ban hit Amsterdam, “Everything we have worked towards would be lost to misery.”

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