UPDATE: The enforcement of the non-smoking law in restaurants, cafes and restaurants has been delayed several years, so coffeeshops are still selling marijuana. Locals and visitors can still purchase and consume cannabis products in Dutch coffeeshops as of this time (Sept 2005).
The Dutch government has been pressured over the last decade to stop the sale of cannabis products in their famous coffeeshops by the French, German and especially US governments. This has resulted in many laws being passed, from limiting the amount of cannabis being sold to 5 grams per person per day, to shutting down coffeeshops for various reasons.
Now under the more conservative government of Balkenende, new laws are coming out to further damage the coffeeshop business, and to make it difficult if not impossible for coffeeshops to continue operating as they have been for thirty years.
The Dutch know that a complete shutdown of coffeeshops in Holland would not only put a lot of people out of work, and damage the tourism industry but would probably result in an all out attack upon the government by many, many distraught Dutch whose lives are dependent upon this industry, worth billions annually to the Netherlands.
What the Dutch refuse to acknowledge is all these workers, whether they're growing cannabis (still very illegal if more than 5 plants), processing the weed, selling the weed wholesale and retail, working in the coffeeshops, or tangentially involved in the industry, are people who don't fit the standard worker mold and refuse to conform to normal Dutch social expectations. These people would not only be put out of work, but they'll have a lot of difficulty staying employed in other occupations. And it should be apparent that if these people are out of work, and unable to freely smoke their cannabis, they're likely to remind the government of what happened in the 1960s, when the Provos demonstrated on the streets of Amsterdam, demanding these rights. They even brought down the government when confronted on this issue.
So rather than face the wrath of a substantial segment of their workforce, the Dutch government continues to eat away at the trade with further restrictions, some of which may be impossible to enforce by coffeeshops, and may result in far fewer coffeeshops or none at all.
There are two newly passed laws and another proposed one that directly affect the way coffeeshops operate.
The first is a law aimed at employee rights. The EU has mandated that employees should have the right to a smoke-free workplace. This means that every business with employees must prohibit smoking or set aside a place for smokers, away from non-smokers. It's seen as a health issue, and a important one, in my opinion.
Of course this means coffeeshops must stop their customers from smoking. It's unclear whether that means tobacco and marijuana or just tobacco. The original EU law supposedly singled out tobacco smoke, but apparently the Dutch version of the law doesn't make such a distinction. The Dutch government has given the Horeca businesses (hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes) an extra year to comply since they too will be affected. But since coffeeshops have never been classified as Horeca (why I'd like to know?), they must comply by Jan 1, 2004. And that might be the day the coffeeshops die.
Since about 35% of Dutch people smoke tobacco this law is going to affect all of them to one extent or another. Businesses that are large enough can set aside smoking areas for their customers. But most coffeeshops are too small to allow for a completely separate area. Also it might be possible for coffeeshop employees to sign some kind of waiver that states that they don't mind working in a smoke-filled workplace, but this seems unlikely.
So the likely scenario resulting from this law is that you can go to a coffeeshop and buy cannabis, but you can't consume it there. This would be absurd, since there would no longer be any place left in public for people to smoke cannabis. You'd have to go to your home to smoke. And while that might work for the Dutch who pretty much do that anyway, it would be devastating for tourists who for the most part are prohibited from smoking in their hotels. In other words there'd be no place left to light up, legally, in Amsterdam!
The next law has just been proposed. It says that the THC level of Dutch cannabis is too high and that this is a problem since people, especially the tourists, get too high! So they want the Dutch to lower the THC level of the cannabis sold in coffeeshops. It seems the Dutch politicos haven't been to a coffeeshop lately, because they would've discovered that this is no longer a problem since most coffeeshops and growers now shake the THC out of the pot to make the most potent hashish in the world. So the pot being sold has already had a good portion of the THC removed. Of course the hashish can have THC levels up to 50%! So under this law, that hashish would be banned from sale. So little of it makes it to the dealers' counters in coffeeshops since the growers and their friends consume most of this product anyway.
The third law coming down will force the 64 Amsterdam coffeeshops, and others around the country that sell booze along with cannabis to choose one or the other to sell. This has been going on thru a process of attrition where if a coffeeshop license changes hands, the new owner must choose one type or the other. But this has taken so long, that the Dutch government wants to speed up the process.
This means that you won't be able to spark a doobie and quench your thirst with a beer at the same time. This is sure to put a cramp in many a pot smoker's day, tourist or Dutch. It's almost like saying you can't smoke cigarettes and drink coffee at the same time. But of course that is what the new employee law is doing.
Let's hope the Dutch don't shoot themselves in the foot with these new laws. The Dutch have a long history of trading in human vices, and if this conservative government manages to outlaw vice (or pleasure as some Dutch accuse their conservative Calvinist leaders of attempting to do), the result will be a loss not only for the Dutch but for human rights, freedom and tolerance. Up till now, the Dutch have aspired to be a model society with these values at the core. But unfounded fears, lies, and backroom politics rule the day, as our freedoms come under attack from every corner. If the Dutch cannot allow such minor freedoms to continue, then other freedoms are sure to fall to the conservative reactionaries.
An obvious solution to the present coffeeshop dilemma is to just create a special class of business for coffeeshops that not only exempts them from the new smoking rule, but lets them become more self-regulating, a concept that most conservatives heartily embrace when it comes to big business.
Why not let coffeeshops continue as they have, but instead of adding more regulatory burden on the coffeeshop owners, start to regulate and legalize the backdoor system of wholesalers and growers who supply the coffeeshops with marijuana products? A recent poll suggests all the Dutch political parties except for the ruling party endorse the legalization of marijuana.
And if EU regulations are to be enforced, as they would with the no smoking rule for employees, then shouldn't the agricultural laws likewise be enforced when it comes to cannabis? Specifically the allowable chemical residues and organic labeling laws?
Indeed if they want to start regulating THC content as the proposed law would do, just how do they plan to enforce this? I suppose we can look forward to new teams of inspectors visiting coffeeshops and testing their product for THC percentage. If they exceed it, you can be sure the coffeeshop will be shutdown. Likewise if the inspectors see smoke in a coffeeshop workplace, they can shut it down for that.
Isn't that the real threat here? Pass more onerous regulations that are nearly impossible for coffeeshop owners to comply with. Then when they can't comply with every one, just shut them down. That is if they haven't already opted to become an alcohol only, nuisance creating bar instead of a mellow cannabis selling coffeeshop.
So does this spell the end of coffeeshops in Amsterdam? It's hard to tell at this point, but if you're thinking about coming to Amsterdam to enjoy the freedom of buying and smoking cannabis in public, you might want to do it soon... while you still can...
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