Amsterdam’s Tolerant Culture

Amsterdam has a very tolerant culture.  During our walking tour of the city, Gabe and I learned more about the red light district and how a regulated and taxed sex industry can exist within a relatively clean and safe environment.  On a related topic, we also met tourists in Amsterdam who were concerned over a possible marijuana ban.  Although we are not included in this group, many travel to Amsterdam primarily (if not only) for its loose laws and drug availability.  As this seemed to be a pressing issue, I found a relevant article on BBC’s travel blog from a couple months back on April 8, 2011.

Travelwise: Marijuana tourism ban in Amsterdam?
By Suemedha Sood

This winter, the European Union gave Dutch authorities the power to ban coffee shops from selling cannabis to tourists. This decision by the European Court of Justice was prompted by a push from the right-leaning Dutch government. But the Netherlands have been threatening to make pot illegal for tourists for years. Could this ruling really change decades of policy?

Certainly not in Amsterdam, said Richard Cowan, an American and the CFO of the biotech company Cannabis Science Inc, who recently relocated there. “It will never work in Amsterdam. The police are opposed to it, because it would cause a big increase in poly-drug street dealing.”

In Amsterdam, the lord mayor, the city council, and (unsurprisingly) the tourist board all oppose the effort. In certain small border towns, Cowan says, it’s possible that authorities may enforce a ban, but only with local agreement.

Marijuana already lives in a legal grey area in the Netherlands. Although technically illegal, it has been “tolerated” for more than 30 years, allowing it to be taxed and sold in coffee shops all over the country. So, the question arises, how do you ban something that’s already illegal? And how do you ban it only for certain consumers?

Logistically, anti-cannabis activists would like to see a “weed passport” introduced that would prevent foreigners from visiting coffee shops that sell pot. But Mario Lap, a drug policy advisor and director of the Drugtext Foundation in the Netherlands, believes that even in border towns, banning marijuana sales to non-nationals would be “counterproductive”.

“What is crucial in this is that it cannot be forced upon towns that do not want it,” Lap explained. “The whole drug [and] coffee shop policy is based on decision-making by local government [entities] called triangle committees.”

From a legal perspective, Lap said this push by the federal government is more symbolic than it is substantive. “[I]t is intended to provide for a tough image in order to [convince] the ultra right wing party to tolerate the right wing minority government.”

With so many tourists visiting the Netherlands specifically for its culture of “tolerance”, cities like Amsterdam would stand to lose a lot from the enforcement of a selective ban. “Supposedly 10% of the tourism is exclusively for cannabis,” said Cowan. “Another 40% [of tourists] visit the coffee shops… [and] a lot of other places would be badly hurt. There are a lot of ‘souvenir’ shops that would go out of business…”

Allen St Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in the US, said there’s no pretence to cannabis tourism, either. He talks about “hash ferries” which bring people in from England, for instance. He also said that Dutch tourism organizations are closely following the situation surrounding marijuana in the US. If pot is legalized in California, Pierre says, Dutch businesses could lose American tourists during winter months.

Pierre pointed out that threats about cracking down on cannabis tourism are nothing new. According to NORML’s archives, he said, “The first time a Dutch government started making noises about tourists buying cannabis was in 1987. So this has been going on for more than 20 years.”

His feeling is that powerful Dutch businessmen will see to it that the lucrative marijuana industry will continue to thrive. “These men are rigid and they are not inclined to back down at all,” he said.

Legally, selective bans could raise fairness issues as well, since they not only discriminate against tourists but also foreigners living in the Netherlands. Cowan says this legal issue will be addressed when the Dutch Counsel of State rules on the constitutionality of the EU’s decision. “That ruling is due any day now,” he said.