Coffee Shops In Amsterdam: Why Are The Amsterdam Cannabis Cafes Allowed?

This page details the origins of coffee shops in Amsterdam.

You will know that the Amsterdam coffee shops (also called Amsterdam cannabis cafes or coffee houses) are the legalized places where you can buy and use cannabis (weed and hash) in the Netherlands.

Amsterdam has by far the most Dutch coffee shops (in 2005, Amsterdam had 270 of 729 coffee shops in the entire Netherlands).

Cannabis Enters The Netherlands

Before and right after the Second World War, cannabis was used only in very small circles of artists and musicians. Through Americans, sailors, North-African traders etc. small amounts entered the country.

It was noticed by the government, who added cannabis to the list of banned drugs (Opiumwet) in 1953. But the number of all drugs violations brought before courts, including LSD and opium, was very low: 10 to 25 per year until the early 1960s. In practice, the police did not go after cannabis because is too unimportant. Still, the small use in intellectual circles led to some publications claiming that cannabis wasn't addictive and prison sentences for cannabis related violations was too much.

Hippies And Provos Discover Cannabis

This changed only after 1965. The small Provo movement began to 'provoke' the authorities with manifestations and activities, and smoking cannabis openly was one of the provocations. When the much larger hippie movement took over the cannabis use, it grew into a phenomenon. Provo leader Robert Jasper Grootveld grew marihuana on the top of his Amsterdam house boat. Cannabis dealers sold weed and hash in Amsterdam clubs like Paradiso and Melkweg, and lots of hippies smoked cannabis in the Amsterdam Vondelpark.

In the first years, the Dutch police tried to prosecute cannabis users. The Amsterdam narcotics police, consisting of 6 officers, arrested people carrying 5 grams or more in the Paradiso and Melkweg clubs and the Vondelpark. The number of drugs violations brought before Dutch courts exploded from 74 cases in 1966 to 544 in 1969. But soon, their attitude changed. Two developments were responsible for this.

Difference Between Soft And Hard Drugs Scenes

First, the spread of cannabis went too fast too keep up with, and police officers couldn't help noticing that the whole cannabis scene was very peaceful and friendly. Repression seemed almost impossible, and also misplaced. Soon, politicians and lawyers began to argue that cannabis should be decriminalized or even fully legalized.

In 1969, the Dutch Public Prosecutor's office issued a formal directive that use of 'soft drugs' (cannabis) is not a priority for the Dutch police. The Hulsman Commission was asked by the national government to investigate the future of drugs policy. In 1971, it advised to decriminalize the use of cannabis and to make production and sale relatively small misdemeanors. They even advised to decriminalize the use (but not production and sale) of hard drugs, too.

In a VPRO TV documentary, narcotics police officer Cees Ottevanger remembers especially the effect the 1970 Kralingen pop concert, which was modeled after Woodstock. It was known in advance that the event would be big (90.000 visitors showed up) and lots of openly cannabis use was almost guaranteed. The Rotterdam police decided to be present in plain clothes, but not to arrest cannabis users.

There, many police officers witnessed drug use for the first time, as part of a new youth culture, and in the words of Ottevanger: "We just couldn't report it as something that was bad or nasty, because the atmosphere was wonderful and there was no reason to believe that anything bad would happen." After 1970, the Dutch police became convinced that 'laissez-faire' was the best way, too.

Secondly, in 1972 the first heroin was spotted in Amsterdam. One source mentions 1,500 hard drugs users in Amsterdam by 1973, which grew to 5,000 by 1977. Experts agreed that 'hard drugs' (heroin, LSD, etc.) were much more dangerous than 'soft drugs' (marihuana and hash), and that the Dutch police and courts should focus their limited resources on them. By 1972, all Dutch political parties supported this, and a governmental policy paper along this line was issued to prepare new legislation.

International Barriers To Full Legalisation

The left-wing Den Uyl administration, entering in 1972, wants to go further and fully legalize cannabis. However, in the decades before, the Netherlands also signed international treaties (among others from the United Nations) on drugs that prohibited legalization domestically. Dutch attempts to open a discussion on cannabis legalization within the UN were blocked immediately. Additionally, the 1973 oil crisis meant that the Netherlands could not afford to be isolated internationally.

The Rise Of Coffee Shops

The first Dutch coffee shop seems to have been Sarasani in Utrecht, opening doors in November 1968 at the Oudegracht. The first of the coffee shops in Amsterdam was Mellow Yellow, opening in 1972 at the Weesperzijde 53. Sometimes, Sarasani is not recognized as the first coffee shop, since apparently it didn't operate entirely the same as coffee shops nowadays.

Mellow Yellow was actually started in a bakery, remembers owner Wernard Bruining in the mentioned VPRO documentary: "We were often visited by friends who came to pick up some soft drugs, smoke a little, drink a cup of tea. At a certain moment we said to each other: let's start a coffee shop or a tea house. We called it Mellow Yellow, after a Donovan song about baked bananas. The song said that if you didn't have anything to smoke, you could still smoke the banana skin and get high from that. We wanted to take the weed trade in our own hands, we didn't want all kinds of situations with dealers, we wanted to do it ourselves. We went to a dealer named Cesar, we would buy a pound or a kilo there, cut it into pieces of 10 or 25 guilders, and sold it. That turned out to be the golden coffee shop formula and we were flooded by customers. There were 100-feet rows outside our shop."

Mellow Yellow was left alone by the police. "Of course, also because we were careful, we tried to keep a low profile. We opened only after 6pm, we didn't advertise, we didn't put cannabis leaves on the door", says Bruining. And, especially, Mellow Yellow did not sell hard drugs, like some of the house dealers in clubs like Paradise and Melkweg had done.

More Amsterdam Coffee Shops

Like always, Mellow Yellow's initial success inspired others to go the same path. In 1975, two more coffee shops in Amsterdam are founded: The Bulldog, owned by Henk de Vries, and Rusland.

During the 1980s, the illegal cannabis trade grew enormously. The early small-scale trade and run by hippies disappeared, and questionable business men and large-scale organized crime took over. Famous gangster Klaas Bruinsma, who became the largest European drugs dealer at the end of the 1980s until he was murdered, began his career as a relative innocent, small-time hash dealer. Bruining remembers how he started carrying weapons because, as Bruinsma told Bruining, foreign hash dealers were also armed and you have to go along.

The New Drugs Law Of 1976

All these factors led the Den Uyl administration, in the new 1976 drugs law (Opiumwet), to adopt a new strategy. Because of international treaties, cannabis remained formally illegal, but it was declared that police would leave small-scale cannabis possession and use alone. Simultaneously, penalties for large-scale trade in both cannabis, and the use and possession of hard drugs like heroin, were considerably increased.

In 1980, the toleration policy towards cannabis appeared in written form, in a government directive. However, this was nothing else than a confirmation of the de facto policies since 1969: small scale trading, use or possession of cannabis would be left alone.

Further Growth Of The Coffee Shops In Amsterdam

After the Bulldog and Rusland coffee shops, many others followed. Especially between 1980 and 1995, the number of coffee shops in Amsterdam rose sharply. In 1993, there were no less than 550 coffee shops in Amsterdam, and many more in the rest of the Netherlands.

That was a bit too much, and the national government came (in 1991) with strict criteria for the toleration of coffee shops in Amsterdam and elsewhere. Coffee shops are allowed if:

- they do not advertise;
- they only sell soft drugs (marihuana and hash) and no hard drugs;
- they do not cause nuisance in the neighborhood;
- they don't allow people under 18;
- they sell no more than 5 grams of cannabis per customer per day, and keep a maximum cannabis supply of 500 grams.

Municipalities are allowed to set additional rules about alcohol and the vicinity of schools.

Application of the criteria led to a decrease of the many coffee shops in Amsterdam: 350 in 1995, 288 in 1999, and 228 at the end of 2008. The Amsterdam city administration has a "three strikes and you're out" policy: coffee shops in Amsterdam that get caught breaking the rules 3 times have to close. Also, no new coffee shops are allowed to open unless the neighborhood has too few coffee shops to cover demand.

Sixty percent of all coffee shops in Amsterdam are located in the city centre. In polls, an overwhelming number of Amsterdammers say they aren't bothered by the presence of coffee shops.

Besides the national rules, Amsterdam doesn't allow coffee shops to serve alcohol. In late 2008, it even announced that coffee shops within 250 meters of schools have to close in a number of years. This even goes for one of the famous Bulldog coffee shops, at the Leidseplein, since it's in the vicinity of the well-known Barleus high school. This has created quite an uproar, since the Bulldog is one of the most famous coffee shops in Amsterdam, and since most of the Barleus students (who are under 18) cannot enter the Bulldog anyway. An investigation by a national TV network found dozens of bars, brothels and sex shops in the direct vicinity of the Barleus - who all, like the coffee shops in Amsterdam, refuse people under 18.

Toleration Policy For Individuals

Additional to the rules for coffee shops, the national government also allows individuals above 18 to own up to 30 grams of cannabis, and up to 5 cannabis plants for personal use (which will generate much more than 30 grams of cannabis!). Upon discovery, they may be confiscated, but there will be no prosecution. You cannot drive, although biking and walking the streets are usually tolerated if you can keep a straight line and don't act weird.

These policies are stated at websites of the Dutch Public Prosecution Service (in English) and the Justice Department (in Dutch only).

Coffee Shops Elsewhere

Within the Netherlands, coffee shops in Amsterdam are by far leading the way. The 3 biggest Dutch cities after Amsterdam (Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht) only have 62, 40 and 15 coffee shops respectively, against 228 coffee shops in Amsterdam at the moment of writing (mid 2009).

Back Door Versus Front Door

This, in a nutshell, is the famous back door - front door problem. Coffee shops are allowed to sell small quantities of cannabis to customers through the 'front door', but the large scale buying of cannabis from producers or traders is banned and actively prosecuted.

This is inconsistent and undesirable in many ways. Obviously, what is consumed, must be produced first. By banning a product that can, and is, sold legally in large quantities, you are creating a large illegal industry. Profits are used to finance other criminal endeavors. Competing gangs murder each other. Governments or other third parties have no means of ensuring quality, and miss out on tax revenues. Dutch police and prosecutors invest lots of time and money in combating cannabis, both to fight organized crime that has now taken over the cannabis trade, and to appease foreign governments.

Perhaps this is why a poll published by NRC Handelsblad showed that 80% of Dutch mayors, of all political convictions, are in favor of regulating production and trade of cannabis, which would also mean decriminalization. At the national 'Weed Summit' in November 2008, 30 municipalities asked the government to allow experiments with controlled growing of cannabis, done by municipal organizations. The national government is hesitant to do this, because of international relations and treaties. Once again, foreign governments are the big obstacle. Municipalities also asked for permission to refuse foreign cannabis tourists: especially many Germany and Belgians flood the coffee shops close to the borders and cause quite some nuisance.

Since all these issues are not likely to be solved, some municipalities have even closed down coffee shops, even when they would like to keep them open if they could only grow their own weed and be allowed to refuse foreign drug tourists. It is unlikely, however, that all coffee shops in Amsterdam might be closed someday. Their number may still diminish somewhat, but coffee shops in Amsterdam are a huge tourist attraction and belong to the city just like Dam Square and Artis Zoo.

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