Marijuana isn’t entirely legal in The Netherlands, but its use and sales are allowed. At locations called coffee shops, Dutch citizens can buy marijuana with relative ease from 193 different places.
The history of Amsterdam coffee shops
Marijuana and hash made its way to Amsterdam via American soldiers following World War 2. Germany-based soldiers made their way into Amsterdam while they were on leave, bringing pot with them. They also brought their culture with them, introducing jazz (and the musicians who would continue to visit Amsterdam), with them.
In the next generation, during the 70’s, Dutch coffee shops began to open up around Amsterdam. At the time, hard drugs as well as marijuana were freely available in Amsterdam and throughout most of the West. Drug addicted patrons, addicted to heroin and cocaine, began to flood the Red Light District of Amsterdam, Amsterdam’s Chinatown, Zeedijk, and the Dam. It was a hotbed of crime and drug activity.
Defining soft vs. hard drugs
The Netherlands quickly tried to resolve its growing drug problem. In 1976, the Opium Act was passed that made a distinction between the soft drugs of marijuana as compared to the hard drugs of cocaine and heroin. Following this law, an increasing number of smoking houses (coffee shops) started to open up throughout The Netherlands.
During the 1980s, following a crime-infested 1970s, a large-scale operation to clean up the Zeedijk, Chinatown, and Red Light District, led to a significant reduction of hard drugs in Holland. In the 1990s, the Zeedijk area was completely renovated and is now welcoming and safe for tourists.
The arrival of the Hippies
While drugs were becoming a significant problem in Amsterdam, one group of drug users were not disturbing the peace. Peace-loving hippies preferred the use of marijuana over all other drugs and posed no threat to the Dutch authorities. As a result, they were not a target of drug legislation and were allowed to continue smoking, although significant actions were taken to curb heroin and cocaine use.
It was during this time that Amsterdam’s first coffee shop appeared, called Mellow Yellow. It was later closed in 1978. Another coffee shop, Sarasani, located in Utrecht, also appeared. While no laws were allowing their presence, the government basically turned a blind eye, tolerating the shops, as they did not cause much of a disturbance.
The oldest Amsterdam coffee shop that is still in existence is called Coffeeshop Rusland. It was opened in 1975 and is still located at its same Amsterdam location. A second shop, The Bulldog, opened the same year, and now has a chain of sites, as well as a souvenir shop and hotel.
Dutch marijuana and neighboring countries
While The Netherlands allows the sale of weed, its neighboring countries do not. In fact, back in 2011, Holland considered instituting a weed pass (sold only to the Dutch) that would prevent non-residents from buying marijuana in Dutch coffee shops. It was unsuccessful, although many cities bordering Germany and Belgium still only sell to Dutch citizens. Amsterdam, however, does not follow this practice, as all tourists 18 and over and buy and smoke marijuana as they please.
What prompted the 2011 Weed Pass?
Being one of few places in Europe to buy marijuana, many Dutch border cities were quickly becoming filled with foreigners looking to buy Dutch pot. Tourists crossed from Belgium and Germany simply to do so. Many of the towns complained of violence related to the international drug trafficking.
As a method of reducing the increase in crime, the government proposed a plan to sell marijuana and hash only to Dutch residents. Furthermore, purchasers would need to show identification that proved they were legal residents of The Netherlands. It was unsuccessful, but many border cities will only sell to Dutch residents.
The typical Holland coffee shop
For years, Holland has been known for its coffee shops, but the number is steadily falling. In 1999, 846 coffee shops could be found in 103 cities, but by 2016, that number dropped to 582. The city of Amsterdam has 193 coffee shops, nearly a third of what can be found in the country.
The Netherlands sells over 100.000 kg of marijuana annually, but only 70% is sold via coffee shops. The rest is sold by home dealers or through secret delivery services.
Dutch coffee shops hold a variety of business hours, but all are required to close by 1 am.
Dutch marijuana laws
Marijuana and hash can be consumed in Amsterdam, as long as it is being used for personal use. It is not technically legal. This is similar to the decriminalization that occurred prior to marijuana legalization in the western states of the USA.
If you were caught possessing more than 5 grams of marijuana, you would go to court. Possession of 5 to 30 grams may result in a month prison term and a €2.250 fine.
If you are caught with more than 30 grams, you may spend up to two years in prison and face a €11.250 fine. For those involved in large-scale drug dealing, or involved in the importing or exporting of marijuana, they may face up to four years in prison and have to pay fines of up to € 45.000.
Is smoking allowed in the cafés and hash bars?
While it is not legal, it is absolutely tolerated. Amsterdam tourists and Dutch residents can purchase and consume up to 5 grams of weed, hash, cannabis, pot or marijuana in coffee shops.
You cannot, however, sell it, as it is explicitly forbidden. Amsterdam coffee shops have obtained a special license that allows them to sell marijuana under certain conditions. These conditions are highly monitored, and those that do not comply face closure.
Is public smoking allowed in Amsterdam?
While smoking on the streets is generally tolerated, lighting a joint outside of a nice restaurant or a bar is typically prohibited. This is enforced by the business and not the government. Additionally, there are some areas of Amsterdam where public smoking is banned because of the risk of second-hand smoke around children.
To help clarify where public smoking could occur, the city designed marijuana street signs. They were so popular that they soon became a collector’s item, and many were stolen. As a result, the city council replaced them and began selling plastic versions of the signs, which, unfortunately, can no longer be purchased.
Are other drugs legal in Holland?
By law, Dutch coffee shops can only sell soft drugs. You will not be able to buy what are considered hard drugs, such as GHB, speed, LSD, XTC (ecstasy) or cocaine. If you are caught possessing these drugs, you could go to prison for four years and pay a € 67.000 fine. If you are caught dealing these drugs, you could spend eight years in prison. If you bring these drugs into The Netherlands, you could go to jail for twelve years.
Amsterdam’s back- door policy
Because it is illegal to buy large quantities of marijuana in The Netherlands, many coffee shops had to come up with creative solutions. In order to provide enough marijuana to meet the demands of their customers, they would merely sneak their supply of cannabis through the back-door. This ‘back-door policy’ ensured their safety, because once the drugs were inside of the shop, they were legally compliant.
Rules to abide by in Amsterdam coffee shops
- Advertisements of any kind are prohibited
- Only marijuana is allowed; no ‘hard drugs’ such as cocaine or LSD
- Customers must be at least 18 years old
- No more than 5 grams per day
- A single person may not store more than 500 grams
- Alcohol is prohibited
- Cannot be located more than 350 meters of a school
- Coffee shops can sell marijuana, but cannot buy it.
The declining number of Amsterdam coffee shops
In 2014, a new rule concerning the location of coffee shops was enforced causing 43 Amsterdam shops to close. These shops were within 350 meters of a school. Many others were closed due to not abiding by the coffee shop laws, (typically for selling hard drugs such as cocaine or ecstasy). In these cases, the mayor could order their closure.
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