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Are Amsterdam’s coffeeshops about to disappear?

Update, Nov. 2, 2008: Amsterdam to close 43 coffeeshops

© DutchAmsterdam.nl — Coffeeshops and Amsterdam: it’s a world-renowned combination that can no longer be taken for granted.

While Amsterdam still has the highest concentration of coffeeshops in the Netherlands, and indeed in the world, during the past 12 years their number has been reduced by 33 percent.

In 1995, 350 coffeeshops in Amsterdam received a license to operate. Today, 234 shops are still in business.

This is part of a national trend: while Holland once had some 1500 coffeeshops, currently just over 700 still exist.

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It is not for lack of demand. Aside from local consumers, a recent report by Amsterdam’s Department for Research and Statistics shows that of the 4.5 million tourists who spend the night in Amsterdam during a given year, 26% visit a coffeeshop. According to the Amsterdam Tourism & Convention Board, 10% of tourists even mention this as a primary reason to visit the city.

So why is the number of coffeeshops dwindling? And why may 93% of Amsterdam’s coffeeshops soon bite the dust?

From Guidelines to Laws

The gradual reduction in the number of coffeeshops in Amsterdam, as elsewhere in the Netherlands, is largely due to the effects of official local and national policies.

Initially, coffeeshops were tolerated under that peculiarly Dutch approach known as gedogen [See Illegal, But Not Illegal].

The main reason behind Holland’s pragmatic approach was to separate the sale of soft drugs, seen as relatively harmless and non-addictive, from the sale of hard drugs – considered far more problematic.

Illegal or not, people were going to use drugs anyway. It was thought that by withdrawing the sale of marijuana and hashish from the sphere of illegality, a useful barrier would be created between soft drugs on one hand, and hard drugs on the other. Among other things, this division of markets would help discourage consumers of legal, harmless soft drugs from getting involved with illegal, harmful hard drugs.

At the same time, it would free up police to concentrate on the fight against criminal gangs involved in the smuggling, production and selling of the latter.

Over the years official guidelines were gradually fine-tuned into stringent policies — often due to violations of the rules by a number of the shops, but also due to international and internal political pressure.

Since 1995 coffeeshops have operated under strict rules:

  • No more than 5 grams per person may be sold in any one transaction.
  • No hard drugs may be sold or even be present on the premises.
  • Drugs may not be advertised in any way.
  • The coffee shop must not cause any nuisance (e.g. it must actively discourage ‘undesirable’ elements from handing around the store, bothering neighbors, etcetera.)
  • No drugs can be sold to minors (under age 18), nor may minors enter the premises.

Why the number of coffeeshops is dwindling

While there is a demand, licences for new coffeeshops are rarely given. Instead, municipal governments follow a so-called Extinction Policy:

  • Break the rules and you’re out
    Since 2003, the service industry — which includes coffeeshops and prostitutes — has been faced with regular checkups performed under BIBOB (‘Act for the Promotion of Integrity Evaluations by Public Government’) laws. These laws are intended to prevent the involvement of organized crime. Enforcement teams randomly ‘raid’ coffeeshops with all the subtlety of American-style SWAT operations.

    A coffeeshop is ordered to close down if the rules under which it was allowed to operate have been violated three times. Generally, the shop in question is boarded shut, and the owner loses his license to operate a coffeeshop.

  • No replacement shops
    If a coffeeshop closes, for whatever reason, no new shop is allowed to take its place
  • No more hashcafés
    Until recently, Amsterdam had a number of hashcafés where — in contrast to coffeeshops — both alcohol and soft drugs were sold. Under the so-called extension policy, they were not allowed to transfer their licenses. If a hashcafé closed, no new one could take its place.

    As of April Fools day, 2007, all hashcafés had to decide whether they would continue as coffeeshops or as cafés. Of the 44 shops, 7 opted to convert to pubs.

Biggest Threat

The biggest threat to the coffeeshops comes from the Netherlands’ conservative government.

Christian Democrats (CDA) is the most powerful party in the Dutch coalition government. Headed by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, the party constantly pushes toward more stringent control of coffeeshops. Under the current Balkenende cabinet, it does so in tandem with the Christian Union (in Dutch: ChristenUnie, CU), a relatively young Dutch orthodox Protestant political party.

The current coalition agreement includes guidelines for the location of coffeeshops in relation to schools. Details have yet to be worked out, but under the most stringent interpretation pushed by the CDA and CU, coffeeshops may not be located within 500 meters of primary or extended education schools.

If that becomes law, 93% of Amsterdam’s coffeeshops would have to close, leaving 16 coffeeshops which are mostly concentrated in the area around Rembrandtplein in downtown Amsterdam.

Under the less stringent norm of 250 meters — already employed by a majority of the 105 Dutch municipalities with at least 1 coffeeshop within their borders — 44 coffeeshops (19%) would be located too close to schools.

Currently, Amsterdam’s rules for coffeeshops merely state that they may not be located close to schools, without actually stating a minimum distance.

Youth and Soft Drugs

The CDA appears convinced that coffeeshops located close to school promote the use of soft drugs among school children.

According to a 2001 report published by national drugs monitor Trimbos Instituut, during the past month:

  • 2% of Dutch childen aged 12-15 smoked a joint
  • 9% of Dutch youth aged 16-19 smoked a joint.
  • 11% of people aged 20-24 smoked a joint.

The Institute also notes that 47% of youth aged 12-17 obtains cannabis from friends and acquaintances. 37% buys cannabis at a coffeeshop — in violation of minimum age guidelines, which not only state that sales may not be made to minors, but that those under the age of 18 may not even enter the premises.

Cannabis use among Amsterdam school youth is slightly higher.

The Bond van Cannabis Detaillisten, the union of organized coffeeshop owners, has published a lengthy response to political arguments used to support exclusion zones around schools.

It points out that coffeeshops do not advertise, and that they are already under strict observation by law enforcement and that — contrary to assertions made by the CDA — coffeeshops do not target school children.

The Union also observes that youth who currently obtain cannabis through unofficial channels will still be able to do so even if coffeeshops are not located near schools.

Meanwhile some coffeeshops — such as the popular, highly-acclaimed De Tweede Kamer in downtown Amsterdam — have voluntarily raised the age limit to 21 in a preventive effort. The assumption is that few 21-year olds will hang out with minors.

Soft Drugs Tourism

Government officials are planning to address drugs tourism in Holland’s border towns as well. Belgium and Germany are not amused by the ease with which their citizens can legally obtain soft drugs in the Netherlands.

The city of Maastricht, in the south-east of Holland, is experimenting with a system of coffeeshop passes in an effort to curtail drugs-tourism.

Dutch daily De Telegraaf cites an unnamed spokesperson for the city of Amsterdam as stating that the Extinction Policy will remain in place. “That said, Amsterdam realizes that the presence of coffeeshops is important for tourism. So they won’t all disappear.”

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