The Netherlands has always been known for its relaxed laws regarding the consumption of Cannabis. Beginning in 1976, it has been available recreationally in Coffee Shops, which has led to a large amount of cannabis-driven tourism across the country. Despite the growing trend across Europe and North America to legalise Cannabis, recent discussions in Amsterdam seem to be going against this tide.
Despite its range of tourist attractions, it appears that the vast majority of those who go to Amsterdam fly for the open availability of cannabis. Over 20 million tourists visited the city, population just 850,000, in 2019. A recent government study, officiated by the Mayor of Amsterdam, showed that 58% of these tourists were visiting mainly to consume the drug – with visiting a coffee shop a vital part of their trip.
This influx of tourism has done both good and bad for the city. It is recorded that annually the Coffee Shops bring in over 400 million Euros in taxation. It is also important to note. However, that it is not just the Coffee Shops themselves that contribute to the economy of the country. Visiting tourists, travelling to the city just for the consumption of cannabis, are also spending money on food, hotels, and tourist sites. The economic benefit of this industry, therefore, is far greater than solely the profit of the sales of cannabis alone.
Why change the laws?
With the huge influx of tourism to the city due to the de-criminalisation and easy access to cannabis, it is initially rather counter-intuitive that the city government would want to change this. Femke Halsema, the Major of Amsterdam, has said she wants to end "the power of attraction of Amsterdam as a holiday resort for soft drug tourism,". For those who live in the city, the influx of tourists can be incredibly disruptive.
Halsema has proposed, therefore, that the sale of cannabis is permitted only to Dutch Nationals or residents of the city of Amsterdam. This proposition is not the first seen in The Netherlands – cities of Maastricht and Den Bosch have also prohibited the sale of cannabis to tourists, due to the vast numbers of French and German visitors to the cities, there only to purchase the drug.
Halsema, an environmentalist, wants to reduce the tourist footfall of the city. In doing so, she also wants to highlight the other attractions it has to offer. For residents of Amsterdam, the overwhelming number of young people coming seemingly just to purchase the drug reduces the quality of life in the city, and greatly increases the levels of pollution. Limiting cannabis sales will change the status of the city to its other European counterparts, a hotspot for arts and culture, not only “soft drug tourism”. Limiting tourists’ access to cannabis will, she hopes, reduce the overpopulation in the city, improve the housing shortage for Dutch citizens, and reduce levels of tourist crime.
Coffee Shops and Crime
There is a further reason for changing the laws around cannabis consumption in the city, moreover. The laws regarding cannabis in Amsterdam are rather unclear and muddled. Although it is de-criminalised for personal use, the production and supply of cannabis is illegal in the Netherlands.
The illegal nature of producing and supplying cannabis, results in the reliance of Coffee Shops on illegal supply chains. Home growers are limited to 5 plants each. Despite the lack of a limitation on size of plant, this restriction means that there is no legal way to produce and supply enough cannabis for the needs of standard tourist Coffee-Shop. These shops, therefore, rely on illegal criminal syndicates to supply their cannabis.
This legal grey-area has effectively resulted in Coffee-Shops acting as a legal retail for criminal gangs. There are links to money-laundering, theft, and occasionally even murder within the groups that supply to these legal retail chains. It seems the hope of the Government, therefore, that in limiting the supply of cannabis to tourists, there can be an easier crackdown on the crime that occurs behind the scenes.
It could be possible to view this new crackdown as a step against the growing tide of legalization. However, when considering further regulations regarding cannabis in The Netherlands it appears this is not the case.
The Dutch government held a draw in December, which provided 10 cannabis producers and cultivators the legal rights to continue their work. These 10 legal producers would then supply to Coffee Shops operating across the country, removing the criminality currently sustained by their existence.
The winners of the lottery will be announced in February. From this legalization of production, the criminal drug syndicates that commit non-drug related crime that currently lead the supply chain within The Netherlands will begin to be dismantled. Moreover, in this way the Government will have more of a control on supply, making the cannabis safer, and improve Dutch tax revenue from the production of the drug.
Will Europe Move To Legalise Cannabis?
Although the proposed new laws regarding the sale of Cannabis in Amsterdam initially seem like a step away from a more liberal drugs policy, they may actually be a step towards it. The increased regulation of the use of the drug means that the policies will no longer just be ‘turning a blind eye’ to the use of cannabis. Instead, there is a hope this could create a regulated market, deemed as safe and sustainable. If these policies come into place, therefore, they could act as a model for other European countries.
It is possible to see the changes positively, therefore. It is possible that many other European governments have seen the cannabis tourism industry in Amsterdam as a reason not to decriminalise or legalise cannabis in their own countries, for just the reasons outlined by the city’s mayor. If, however, it is possible to regulate and legalise the market, and cut down on the havoc and overcrowding caused by the current policies, states across the globe could begin to admire the Dutch model.
The Dutch government are also updating their education policies to reflect a growing trend reflecting the advantages of the drug. In schools, students will be taught about the health benefits of cannabis for those suffering from chronic pain, epilepsy, and other conditions. This two fold-approach will hopefully transform the cannabis industry in the Netherlands from one that is criminal, to one that is legal and beneficial.