Walk through the red-light district, where beckoning women in fishnets display themselves in dimly lit windows, pass the bigger cafes such as the Grasshopper and Homegrown Fantasy, and soon you come to the 420 Cafe, where you can always spot the first-timers. Fresh-faced young things bravely walk through the door. Bravery quickly fades. Is this really, like, legal? But eyes light up at the menu. Dude, no way. They’ve even got hash.
Bongs, papers and vaporizers (the “Rolls-Royce of toking”) are free with purchase, along with a dense atmosphere rich in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). In one little corner, deep conversations (at least they seemed so at the time) are going on in English, Turkish, Spanish, French and Hindi. At the register stands Steven Pratt, 420’s budtender and sommelier of Amsterdam weeds, many of which are grown in the Netherlands and discussed with the same academic passion as wines in France.
The new policy would see cannabis cafes become members-only clubs, with “pot passes” to enter issued only to registered Dutch citizens and resident foreigners. But the idea of registration directly clashes with the notion of liberation being peddled at cafes, and many owners and Dutch clients insist they will simply refuse to comply.
Looking the other way
Technically, buying pot and hash in the Netherlands has always been illegal, but since 1976 a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy arose over possession of less than five grams. By the 1990s, pot coffee shops or “cannabis cafes” were issued “toleration licenses,” effectively allowing them to sell small quantities of soft drugs as long as they didn’t also sell alcohol. The opaque procurement of large stocks by cafe owners clearly violates Dutch law, but authorities simply look the other way.
Statistics show the rate of marijuana use in the Netherlands is actually lower than in the United States or Britain. The pushback against drug tourism came as a result of a rise in organized crime. Opponents say the Netherlands has become the wholesale supplier for illicit sales across Europe. In 2010 in the southern town of Helmond, for instance, a cannabis cafe was attacked with hand grenades, and the mayor and his family were forced into hiding after being threatened by suspected drug runners.
In recent years, Rotterdam and other cities have sought to curb cannabis cafes, with the current nationwide total of 650 about half the peak numbers in the 1990s. Nearly one-third of those are packed block to block along the pot-scented streets of central Amsterdam, where tourists account for up to 90 percent of the cliental at some establishments.
If the new law is rigorously applied here, cafe owners insist it will simply mark a return to the days of unsafe street-corner deals.
“You might hurt tourism and the cafes, but a few new guidelines are not going to stop people from buying weed in Amsterdam, trust me,” said Michael Veling, 56, owner of the 420 Cafe.
Special correspondent Marit Van Kooij contributed to this report.