Rise and Fall of Cannabis Culture in Amsterdam

With new legislation in the Netherlands, conservative politicians are targeting the beloved cannabis coffee shops in Amsterdam. How did we get here and what can we do?

Photo by Javier M.

Years ago, if you imagined a place that embraces unrestricted self-expression, a place unencumbered by narrow-minded norms and conservative legislation, what might have instantly popped into your mind was: Amsterdam. Amsterdam is still a choice destination in Europe that allows people to enjoy the many hedonistic pleasures that life has to offer. They have the most progressively liberal laws and have continued to blaze the trail in enactment of legislation that accommodates diverse interests–euthanasia, gay marriage, legal prostitution, and cannabis among others–which make Amsterdam a place for everyone.

However, in recent years, Amsterdam has seen a regressive deterioration to conservative values, making this unique Dutch metropolis a shadow of the former exaltation of social and political liberal state. 

Coffee Shops

In its heyday, the Netherlands once boasted close to 1,500 coffee shops–cafes where you could legally smoke marijuana, hash, and ingest cannabis products–and an estimated 300 of those were in Amsterdam alone. There was a whole industry built around the sale of marijuana, which was largely responsible for the steady influx of tourism and staggering economic benefits. But that is not the case any more.

Unfortunately, a series of extreme remedial measures–initially intended to combat the challenge of drug trafficking and tackle disputes with surrounding countries like Belgium and Germany–were initiated by the conservative party. While no major changes have been made to Amsterdam drug laws, authorities have started cracking down on existing regulations, closing down coffee shops for violating even minor infractions that they once overlooked. Not surprisingly, this has led to the steady decrease of coffee shops, some by government mandate and some anticipating further restrictions down the road.

Another contributing factor to Amsterdam coffee shop closures is ongoing governmental attempts to discourage the use of so-called ‘soft-drugs’ among local teenagers; in recent years the city has gradually closed down coffee shops that are located within 250 meters (~80 feet) from a high school. The charade was originally disguised as a child protection measure but lacked any substantive proof that closing nearby shops will have the intended effect, particularly because the shops are already prohibited from serving anyone under 18 years old, which high school students are usually not. While there are ongoing debates about the measure, as of now this plan will force 28 of Amsterdam’s coffee shops to close. Among them, sadly, is Mellow Yellow, a historical attraction in Amsterdam and the very first coffee shop in the world… which happens to be located less than 250 meters from a nearby school.

How Did We Get Here?

To understand how this widespread retrogression to conservatism arrived in the Netherlands, we must first look overseas: The 9/11 attacks triggered an international crisis and widespread fear amongst nations. These attacks and others were exploited upon by powerful conservatives in the Netherlands. With conservatism in power, the morality of cannabis was once again called into question and extreme countermeasures and policies began to impact on the cannabis industry negatively.

But there is another issue at play specific to Amsterdam and its coffee shops, often referred to as the "front door-back door paradox" which stems from the strange reality that cannabis is technically illegal in the Netherlands but has been tolerated for decades; coffee shops can sell cannabis lawfully–(from the front door)–but coffee shops buying cannabis (i.e. back door) is criminalized.

Though Amsterdam has been long-known for its liberal values and "everything goes" attitude with its drug use and red light district, policies like these simply demonstrate the inherent confusion of Dutch ideology and could explain why public and political opinion in the Netherlands is being called into question at a time when the rest of the world is headed in the direction of total legalization. 

Weed Pass

The Weed Pass ruling restricts the sale of marijuana in coffee shops to card-carrying Dutch nationals only. This legislation has already been rolled out in certain municipalities in the Netherlands but excludes Amsterdam. The city has until now managed to circumvent adopting this measure on the grounds that it would cause a spike in street dealing, but if passed would effectively kill the cannabis tourism on which its economy is so heavily reliant. And given how much of the coffee shop customer base in Amsterdam is foreign, this measure would cause even more coffee shop owners to close their doors given how much of their customer base are tourists.   

The End of Cannabis Cup

The somewhat conservative posture adopted by the authorities culminated in 2014 at the 27th High Times Cannabis Cup, when the most well-known cannabis festival was unexpectedly cancelled after claims that organizers lacked the proper permits. The next year, municipality declined three different requests for permit authorization, forcing organizers to stop holding the annual event in Netherlands altogether. Undoubtedly, this was a severe blow to weed-lovers around the world and certainly does not bode well for Amsterdam’s once-thriving cannabis community. 

New Hope?

But as life goes on, the old Cannabis tradition of Amsterdam finds other ways to keep the spirit alive. The threat of killing the tourism economy still gives great pause to politicians who are contemplating tighter regulation in Amsterdam. Buses filled with people still flood the Netherlands seeking the aromatic flavor of cannabis. As long as their doors remain open, coffee shops will continue to compete with each other for the best strain. Here’s an updated list of the best coffee shops in Amsterdam.

Though the Cannabis Cup is no longer, the city seems to be returning to its former splendor with new cannabis competitions being organized to fill the void. The oldest Dutch contest for judging cannabis, the Highlife Cup (started in 1993 by the Dutch-language Highlife magazine), has conducted an award ceremony in Amsterdam’s Cannabis Liberation Day for three consecutive years. Similarly, the Amsterdam Unity Cup caters to younger partygoers and features the best strains from 14 different coffee shops.

Elsewhere in the country, The Homegrown Cup–held annually in Eindhoven–celebrates the annual agricultural harvests at the end of the season; and while it is not as elaborate as the other events, is beloved for keeping alive an old tradition which is perhaps the most important objective when it comes to securing the future of cannabis in the Netherlands and in its capital.

With events like these, one would expect the reconstruction of cannabis culture in Amsterdam which would engender a socio-political comeback to a more liberal view.

Time will tell if these new alternatives will revive the free spirit of Amsterdam.

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Rise and Fall of Cannabis Culture in Amsterdam