As recently as 5 years ago, a trip to the Netherlands (Amsterdam in particular) was the best option for an American looking to experience legal cannabis. As such, it was a mythical place in my eyes growing up on the east coast, and that legendary status will remain immortalized in such timeless works as Pulp Fiction. But Amsterdam wasn’t always the cannabis mecca it is today.
It wasn’t so long ago, before the 1960s cultural revolution, that the Netherlands languished under prohibition just like everywhere else in the western world. So the question remains – why the Netherlands? What allowed for a relaxation of cannabis law enforcement decades before most other areas even considered decriminalization or medical cannabis?
A Shift in the Thinking of Dutch Society
When psychoactive drugs saw their initial rise in global popularity during the 60s, Dutch authorities first reacted with the typical repression still seen in much of the world. It wasn’t until enforcement guidelines, released in 1969 by the Public Prosecutor’s office, that Dutch cannabis enforcement started to evolve beyond the global standard. The guidelines called for a shift in enforcement away from cannabis, to a focus on harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
The foundation for this shift in thinking lies a bit deeper in the history of the Netherlands. For centuries, Dutch culture has revolved around a tolerant commercialism, a willingness to trade and interact with cultures different than their own, without the need to necessarily enforce Dutch social mores on those societies. The Dutch empire, which peaked in the 1600s, relied on trade to support an empire that stretched from Indonesia to modern day New York City. Unlike the English or Spanish empires, that expansion relied more on trade and commerce with existing societies through small outposts, rather than on large-scale settlement, conquest or assimilation – although, like all colonialism, violence and oppression were certainly a part of the equation in some areas. However, the Netherlands own struggle for independence from catholic, inquisition-era Spain the previous century had planted seeds for tolerance of other cultures and religions that were just nowhere to be found in English or Spanish society at the time.
Though the Dutch empire was somewhat short-lived, trade and commerce continued to fuel prosperity in the small nation. In the 1960s, cannabis smoking wasn’t necessarily any more popular in the Netherlands than elsewhere, but that attitude of tolerance led authorities to take a closer look at the distinction between cannabis and harder, harmful drugs.
The Dutch Notion "Gedogen" and Cannabis
One important point to note is that cannabis is still technically illegal in the Netherlands. However, the Dutch notion of “Gedogen”, essentially the opposite of ‘zero-tolerance’ policies, calls for non-enforcement of certain laws when society considers it practical. Gedogen asserts that law enforcement is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. If enforcement of a law is not serving society, yet bureaucracy or international treaties make it difficult to actually change the law, then why bother to enforce the law? It is essentially this same principle that made its way into American policies via the Cole Memo under President Obama, allowing states to decide their own cannabis policies while the federal government simply abstained from enforcement if certain conditions were met.
Ultimately, Dutch society decided it would be beneficial to treat cannabis differently than hard drugs. A 1969 study by Herman Cohen questioned the idea of cannabis as a gateway drug, and argued that separating the cannabis world from the harder drug scene would reduce the number of cannabis users who experiment with other drugs such as heroin. Another report that same year from the Hulsman Committee argued that drugs should be treated as a public health issue, with enforcement determined by the actual danger each substance poses to users and to society as a whole. That may sound like common sense, but it was radical at the time. A 1972 report from the Baan committee distinguished substances with “unacceptable risk” from others. That committee argued that the negative effects of criminalizing cannabis use outweighed the benefits to users and to society of enforcement. They proposed the decriminalization of cannabis.
These proposals were put into practice on a small scale in the early 70s. At the Holland Pop festival in 1970, Rotterdam authorities opted to simply observe, rather than arrest, the cannabis smoking crowds. In 1972, one “tea shop” that later joined the ranks of the famous coffee shops, called Mellow Yellow, sold cannabis from a dealer at the counter posing as a customer – a cautious prelude to the full service coffee shops of a few years later. In 1976, the Dutch government amended the Opium Act to distinguish between softer drugs like cannabis, and those with “unacceptable risk.”
CoffeeShops in Amsterdam
The first “coffeeshop,” in the sense that we know and love them today, opened in 1975. Called the Bulldog, it still exists today. Since these first years, the coffee shops in Amsterdam have faced increasing regulation. In 1994, the “AHOJ-G” criteria were officially put into place. Those criteria call for low-key signage and advertising, no hard drugs on the premises, no loitering, littering, or excessive noise, no sales or admittance to underage (under 18) customers, and no transactions involving amounts over 30 grams.
Since then, authorities in the Netherlands have often sought to further tighten their grip on the situation, cracking down on things like the sale of psilocybin mushrooms, which became illegal in 2008. Mellow Yellow, the pioneer coffee shop, is set to close as part of government plans to close coffee shops within 800 feet of schools. Border towns have moved towards no longer selling cannabis to non-residents of The Netherlands after complaints that cannabis was making its way over the border into France and Germany.
Nonetheless, estimates put cannabis revenue in the Netherlands at over 600 million dollars annually. So it seems unlikely the Dutch will want to give up this income any time soon. Official research by the city of Amsterdam estimates that 35 percent of tourists who come to the city visit a coffee shop at some point during their time there, and it seems possible the real number could be higher than official estimates. The foundation of cannabis tolerance in Holland is still strong, and on the whole, coffee shops as an institution are probably not going anywhere. With other European countries weighing the benefits of legalization and decriminalization, the tide still seems to be moving in the right direction.