Cannabis coffee shop
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Under the drug policy of the Netherlands, the sale of cannabis products in small quantities is allowed by 'licensed' coffee shops. The majority of these "coffeeshops" (in Dutch written as one word) also serve drinks and food. Coffeeshops are not allowed to serve alcohol (although in the past some coffeeshops in central Amsterdam have transgressed this law without reproach) or other drugs, and risk closure if they are found to be selling soft drugs to minors, hard drugs or selling alcohol. The idea of coffeeshops was introduced in the 1970s for the explicit purpose of keeping hard and soft drugs separated.
In the Netherlands, 105 of the 443 municipalities have at least one coffeeshop. Many at the borders sell mostly to foreigners (mostly from Belgium, Germany and France), who can also buy cannabis in their own countries, but prefer the legality and higher product quality of Dutch coffeeshops.
A Dutch judge has ruled that tourists can legally be banned from entering cannabis cafes, as part of restrictions that were implemented in 2012.
Dutch coffee houses not serving cannabis are called koffiehuis (literally "coffee house"), while a café is the equivalent of a bar.
In the Netherlands, the selling of cannabis is "illegal, but not punishable", so the law is not enforced in establishments following these nationwide rules:
- No advertising
- No hard drug sales on the premises
- No sales to anyone under the age of 18
- No sale of quantities greater than five grams
- No public disturbances
For some offences, a business may be forced to close for three to six months; for others, the business may be closed permanently. All these rules are detailed in official policies.
Coffeeshops are no longer allowed to sell alcohol. Most coffee shops advertise, and the constraint is more moderating than outright prohibitive. In a gesture of discretion still technically required, many coffee shops keep the cannabis menu below the counter, even when the cannabis itself is in more-or-less plain view. Dutch coffee shops often fly green-yellow-red Ethiopian flags, other symbols of the Rastafari movement, or depiction of palm leaves to indicate that they sell cannabis, as a consequence of the official ban on direct advertising. This aesthetic attracts many public artists who may be paid to create murals in the coffee shops and use the Rastafari and reggae related imagery.
Coffeeshops provide non-contaminated cannabis products (and hence have no unexpected chemicals). Cannabis and any food products containing cannabis are generally clearly identified to prevent accidental consumption.
There is an on-going contradiction, as a coffeeshop is allowed to buy and sell cannabis within the legally tolerated limits, but its suppliers are not allowed to grow or import it, or to sell it to the coffeeshop: "The front door is open, but the backdoor is illegal." There are proposals for remedying this situation (as of January 2006), e.g. by controlled growing of cannabis to replace imports. One proponent of this is Gerd Leers, Minister for Immigration and Asylum Affairs, who, when in national parliament, was in favour of further criminalisation of cannabis, in keeping with the policies of his party, CDA, which is the strongest opponent of the drugs policy of the Netherlands. However, when confronted with the practical difficulties when he became mayor (and consequently head of police) he changed his mind and even became the best known advocate against the illegality at the back door, which takes up a disproportionate amount of time and money for the police, in tracking down (mostly indoor) plantations.
In 2008, the 'Vereniging van nederlandse gemeenten' (VNG, the organisation of Dutch municipalities) organised a 'wiettop' (a wordplay on the flowery tops that cannabis is made of), attended by 33 Dutch mayors from both big and small municipalities and various political parties. Reasons for the top were drugs tourism in border regions (the mayors of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom had just announced an intention to close all coffeeshops), the strong link with illegality (including laundering of money through coffee shops) and the discrepancies between the policies of the various municipalities. At this wiettop, all mayors agreed that regulation of the 'backdoor' was desirable. Rob van Gijzel, mayor of Eindhoven announced he intended to start a 'monitored pilot' of issuing licenses for the production of cannabis. But near the borders, the front door should also be (better) regulated, forbidding sales to foreigners. This would also greatly decrease the demand at the backdoor. Intentions were to discuss the results of the wiettop with the national government before the end of 2008.
In a survey among mayors by NRC Handelsblad at the time of the wiettop (with a 60% response) 80% of the mayors were in favour of 'regulating the backdoor' (i.e. making it legal). However, only 18% were in favour of making the market for soft drugs completely free. 22% were in favour of reducing the number of coffeeshops and 10% want to close them all. Strikingly, this has little to do with the view of their political party, from which NRC Handelsblad concludes it's based on practical considerations, rather than ideological.
Required distance from schools
In 2008, the Dutch government decided that coffeeshops would no longer be allowed within a radius of 250 m of schools. In Amsterdam, this means the closing of 43 more coffeeshops (in preceding years the number had already been reduced from 350 to 228). Mayor Job Cohen had preferred no change but complied reluctantly. He pointed out that coffeeshops are already not allowed to sell to customers aged under 18, so the policy would not have much effect.
Each municipality has a coffee shop policy. Some do not allow any; most of these municipalities are either controlled by strict Protestant parties, or are bordering Belgium and Germany and do not wish to receive "drug tourism" from those countries. A March 19, 2005 article in the Observer noted that the number of Dutch cannabis coffee shops had dropped from 1,500 to 750 over the previous five years, largely due to pressure from the conservative coalition government. The "no-growth" policies of many Dutch cities affect new licensing. This policy slowly reduces the number of coffeeshops, since no one can open a new one after a closure. Most municipalities have designated a certain zone (e.g. around schools and high schools) where coffeeshops are not allowed, which may be from a hundred metres to several kilometres.
The municipality of Terneuzen has put up road signs showing the way to the coffeeshops. The same town has recently decided to restrict local by-laws for cannabis from May 2009. In Maastricht the coffee shops are forbidden for foreign tourists. A controversial measure to introduce a "wietpas" (Dutch) or "weed-pass" membership system — pushed primarily by Christian political parties within the Dutch coalition government - has been proposed; this pass would restrict coffee shop cannabis sales to residents of the Netherlands with a membership card only. The ban for foreign tourists started in three southern provinces on May 1, and is due to go nationwide by the end of 2012. Despite strong protests from coffee shop owners, a judge in the Netherlands has upheld a new law to ban foreign tourists from entering cannabis cafes. Lawyers representing the coffee shop owners have promised to appeal the ruling, and protests are continuing.
Smoking on the premises
Smoking joints has been common in cannabis coffee shops. However, since 1 July 2008 there is a tobacco smoking ban in the Netherlands which allows smoking joints containing tobacco in a separate smoking room only. Bongs and pure cannabis joints can still be smoked inside the premises. However, most coffee shops still sell mixed joints/ spliffs, i.e. those with tobacco mixed with cannabis, and have made customers smoke in upstairs or downstairs rooms. In some shops, however, the separation room rule is only as 'separate' as the smoking/non-smoking 'separation' sections in many restaurants and bars around the world.
Outside the Netherlands
Despite Canadian laws forbidding its non-medical use, some cities and local law enforcement have, at times, tolerated coffee shops which allow customers to smoke cannabis.
In Vancouver, for example, the New Amsterdam and Blunt Brothers were cafes on West Hastings Street with such pro-cannabis policies. The two companies have been at the core of Vancouver's "Vansterdam" scene since the beginning. In 2004 Blunt Bros Cafe & Headshop, along with four other businesses were destroyed by a fire that ripped through the 303 building on West Hastings street. The fire was ruled as arson, but no one was ever found or charged. The New Amsterdam Cafe narrowly avoided destruction by that very same fire and has since been the last bastion of the Vansterdam Vibe. In Vancouver, these shops can mostly be found on the block of 300 West Hastings Street.
In Toronto, there are a growing number of bring-your-own-cannabis coffee shops. Each Toronto cafe has its own set of rules and attitude but generally follow the rules of 18 and older with ID at the door, no tobacco or hard drugs on the property, and no selling of cannabis on the premises.
NORML has opened a cannabis-themed coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. It is accessible to NORML members who are authorized under The Oregon Medical cannabis Program. Cannabis is not available for sale, but distributed freely for consumption on premises. There is also speculation of cannabis coffee shops opening in Colorado and Washington following the states' 2012 legalization of cannabis following public referenda.
In Jérôme Enrico's French comedy film Paulette an impoverished old lady sells space cakes to make ends meet. She gets jumped by a police dog, robbed by competing drug dealers and menaced by a drug lord. The happy end is that she finally emigrates to the Netherlands where she can sell her pastry legally by opening a French bakery which is registered as a cannabis coffee shop.
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- CoffeeshopNieuws.nl All the latest news about the Dutch tolerance policy and cannabis coffeeshops.
- New Rules, No Drugs website explains the new rules for the sale of cannabis in The Netherlands in four languages.