Strumming gently at a guitar, outside the “nicest” coffee shop in Amsterdam, French tourists Terry Novel and Manon Fouquet enjoy a quiet joint in the sun.
They have no idea of the dark cloud around them and the cannabis sector in Amsterdam. The council has just spent a day debating whether to ban tourists from cafes such as Coffeeshop The Rookies – where the state currently turns a blind eye to foreigners smoking weed and taxes the profits.
“We just really love the city,” says Fouquet, 26. “We come for the museums and the people and the ambience, not just to smoke. But it’s nice that it’s legal and well done, there’s good-quality weed and a lot of respect from people.”
Not, though, from everyone. The mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, who has the last word on law and order, wants a temporary ban on non-residents in coffee shops – by enforcing a national residents-only rule, known as the i-criterium.
Even though there will be no majority for the ban when councillors vote on Wednesday, Halsema has not given up. In her view, and that of the local heads of police and prosecution bodies, banning tourists from coffee shops is unavoidable in order to reduce the size of the soft drug sector, tackle tourist nuisance and attack hard-drug criminality.
A recent study suggested that 100 of the capital’s 166 coffee shops in effect serve only the needs of tourists. Now that coronavirus travel measures have gone, the red light district is as rowdy as ever, and there is increasing pressure to tell people wanting a “moral holiday” to go elsewhere. At the end of a long council meeting on Thursday, Halsema was not deterred. “My good friends,” she said, “we will let the i-criterium simmer in your heads.”
In April, in a 13-page policy proposal, the mayor asked for the council’s support to temporarily enforce the residents-only law, largely because of concerns about the “criminal back door” of the coffee shops. Smoking and possessing weed for personal consumption are “tolerated”, but commercial growing is not – so coffee shops must buy from criminals. An influential 2019 report on the capital’s “dark side” suggested revisiting the residents-only rule to help tackle this “urban jungle”.
Some parties agree, including the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), which proposed a ban two years ago. “It’s one of the few ‘knobs’ that we can turn on a local level to curb the major nuisance in the city centre and adjust our drink-drug image,” local party leader Claire Martens told the Observer. “Amsterdam is too beautiful for that and the residents deserve better. The bachelor parties and the European tourists who come here by car to smoke weed, sleep in their car and make noise are not adding any value to the city.”
Els Iping, a former Labour politician involved in the residents group Stop de Gekte (“stop the madness”), and the Wallenwacht – which reminds misbehaving tourists that families live there – said locals believe tighter controls on brothels, alcohol serving-times and coffee shops are essential. “The dealers come for the tourists, the tourists come for the coffee shops,” she told the Observer. “We are saying: break the circle!”
Others fiercely disagree. Mark Jacobsen, co-owner of The Rookies, believes hard drugs have nothing to do with his sector. “I have had my coffee shop for 30 years and the moment [customers] do anything with cocaine, I throw them out figuratively and literally,” he told the council.
He told the Observer that research for the Bond van Cannabis Detaillisten business group found just under half of tourists came for cannabis, and 24% would still come, even if banned. “The government allows us to be entrepreneurs this way, but never finished gedoogbeleid [drug tolerance policy],” he said. “If someone grows cannabis, they are criminal, but I see my business as separate from hard drugs and other crime.”
Others worry about street dealers increasing, especially as Amsterdam and other cities try to protect vulnerable young men from crime. Sheher Khan, head of the local Denk party, said: “Our main objection is that young people will be tempted under the wing of the large drug criminals. The i-criterium will make it possible for them to lure young men into street dealing. It is happening now. The question is: do you, as government, want to make it worse?”
Dr Ton Nabben, criminologist and drug researcher, studied the effects of an unsuccessful mandatory resident “weed pass” a decade ago in border towns such as Maastricht. He told the council that there would simply be a “water bed” effect, with supply moving elsewhere. “You will get a situation where you arrive at Schiphol and the dealers ask if you’d like to buy something because you can’t go in a coffee shop,” he explained to the Observer.
“Some tourists have been framed as low-value, but there are all kinds of groups who go to coffee shops, young and old, people with a job who come for a conference and, of course, the stoned young Italians and Brits. But that’s not the majority, and you see them in cafes the world over.”
Back in The Rookies, where Amnesia Haze sells for €10.90 per gram and a sign invites visitors to smile, 21-year-old Novel wonders why cannabis is stigmatised. “It’s a daily help,” he says. “Like a glass of wine in France.”
• This article was amended on 4 October 2022. A picture caption in an earlier version referred to marijuana being sold “legally” for personal use. As the article indicates, the Netherlands has a policy of toleration regarding the possession and sale of small quantities of soft drugs, although these activities are not strictly permitted in law.