Dutch cabinet to further squeeze a declining 'coffee shop' industry


Holland’s new coalition aims to do away with the drugs outlets altogether, writes PETER CLUSKEYin Amsterdam

DOES Holland’s relatively tolerant attitude towards cannabis – exemplified by “coffee shops”, where cannabis can be bought and smoked legally – mean that Dutch youngsters are more likely to use it, and then more likely to move on to something stronger? The answer appears to be no.

According to a survey less than a year ago by the EU drugs monitoring centre, Dutch young people lag well behind many of their European neighbours when it comes to smoking marijuana. The findings surprised everyone – except the Dutch.

Broadly, the survey found that 11.4 per cent of young people aged between 15 and 24 had used cannabis the previous year, down from 14.3 per cent eight years earlier. Some 5.4 per cent of people aged between 15 and 65 used it once a year which was much lower than either Spain or Italy, for instance, at 11.2 per cent, or Canada at 17 per cent.

Those figures will be given fresh relevance at the end of this week, when Holland’s long-awaited new cabinet – led by prime minister designate, Mark Rutte – is finally expected to meet for its first photo with Queen Beatrix.

While finding €18 billion in cuts tops its agenda, the new coalition government is also proposing to tighten the rules governing Amsterdam’s coffee shops, turning them into members-only clubs, and effectively barring so-called “drugs tourists” – of whom more than two million arrive in the Dutch capital each year.

This latest charge against the coffee shops is being championed – as it was when they led the last coalition government in 2002 – by the Christian Democrats (CDA), whose stated aim is to gradually do away with the shops altogether.

This time the CDA are junior partners of the Liberals (VVD) in the new government – but their stance is being backed as part of its law-and-order programme by Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV), who will support the coalition from outside.

In this political context, the EU figures are crucial because they give a valuable insight into the reality of Dutch attitudes to drugs – as against the popular “anything goes” view from outside Holland’s borders.

So what is the reality of the coffee shops? In 1976, the Netherlands passed an updated Opium Act, which banned drug use but distinguished between hard and soft drugs, although neither is legal. That distinction is crucial.

Following a policy of dedoogbeleid or tolerance, coffee shops are allowed to sell cannabis on condition that patrons are over 18, the quantity is no more than 5g per person, no more than 500g is kept on the premises, and the shop is not within 500m of a school.

Beyond that, the reality is that Dutch drug laws are pretty strict and law enforcement is tough. It’s all about management.

Eighty per cent of Dutch municipalities do not allow coffee shops, new licences are rarely issued and the number of shops is falling everywhere.

Amsterdam once had 800; now it has fewer than 250. In 1997, there were about 1,500 nationwide; now the figure is just over 700.

In addition, Dutch spending on drug control is by far the highest in Europe, at around 0.7 per cent of GDP. Outside Amsterdam, cannabis use is only one-third as common as in the capital. The Netherlands has below EU-average annual rates of cocaine, opiate and amphetamine use. And the enormous Schiphol Airport has long had a zero-tolerance drug policy, rigorously applied.

So, as the new Dutch coalition bows to pressure from its EU neighbours and from within the ranks of its own social conservatives to control Amsterdam’s coffee shops, who is complaining in Holland? Very few, apart from coffee shop owners.

“It’s getting worse every year,” says Ferry Hansen, who has owned and run the Get A Life coffee shop in Amsterdam for the past 14 years, and says the latest reforms – if they go ahead – will undoubtedly have an impact on business.

“Government control is becoming tighter and tighter, so you have to follow the law carefully and think three times about everything you do. If you follow the law, they can’t say anything.”

And yet in Utrecht, Holland’s biggest third-level city, tolerance has bred indifference.

“In Amsterdam it’s all about business,” 25-year-old David, who recently graduated, told The Irish Times.

“Amsterdam is all about drugs and hookers. That’s for tourists. The rest of Holland isn’t like that.”