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Amsterdamned if you do, Amsterdamned if you don’t: Don’t poach my pot

Published: May 19, 2012
Section: Opinions


We’ve all heard the cliche, “When in Rome do as the Romans do,” urging travelers in foreign countries to experience as much of the foreign land that they can. Yet, this cliche seems to be stunted in the Netherlands. A recent law passed in the Netherlands prohibits the average tourist from engaging in one of Amsterdam’s most renowned activities, the use of cannabis. For decades Amsterdam has been a destination on the minds of many young (and sometimes old) travelers who wish to partake in this activity.

This draw stems from the almost universal illegality of cannabis, allowing the adventurous tourist to participate in an activity that would otherwise be frowned upon. Yet it is a common misconception that prior to this ban cannabis was legal. Rather, drug policy of the Netherlands allowed small quantities of cannabis to be sold in certain licensed coffee shops. Until recently licensed coffee shops were permitted to sell cannabis along with food and beverages, however, coffee shops that sold cannabis were prohibited from selling alcoholic beverages.

Another common misconception is that cannabis can be smoked anywhere in the country and by anyone. Rather, cannabis use is restricted to indoor places like one’s home or a coffee shop and may only be sold to people older than 18. The coffee shops were allowed to participate in this trade as long as they followed these regulations. This drug policy originated in the 1970s in an attempt to separate hard drugs from soft drugs so as to break the association of illegal drugs like cannabis and heroin, which is suggestive of similarity and therefore of similar consequence and effect.

Such a conception proves logical in the fact that, in countries where cannabis is illegal, there is often a much higher use per capita rate than in Amsterdam. So, in reality, if one is to partake in the use of cannabis in Amsterdam, is one really doing what “Amsterdamers” do? The new ban would suggest so. The new ban, passed recently by the Dutch government, went into effect May 1, 2012, in several municipalities and prohibits tourists from entering coffee shops that sell and distribute cannabis. Rather, it only allows citizens of the Netherlands to use such coffee shops and only if they have a membership card to the coffee shop. Each coffee shop must now have a log of members and will have a limited membership of 2,000 residents. Prior to the ban, there was much opposition to the move with many people calling the law “tourism suicide.” Honestly, it is safe to assume that the typical college student thinks of two things when they think of Amsterdam: cannabis and prostitutes.

Forget about the beautiful architecture and canals, right? The famed red light district and the “legal” cannabis are the two largest pulls that Amsterdam has in the tourist trade, and one might even suggest that they’re not so mutually exclusive. A drop in tourism, however, is not the only projected outcome of this new law. In a country where the quality of cannabis is so high and so regulated, it is not likely that the ban will prevent the drug from circulating around the nation. It is more likely that an underground (or outside of coffee shops) cannabis market will open up to supply the constant demand. And in the case of an underground market, one must recognize the possible consequences. Not only will this activity be illegal but it will also go unregulated, which will inevitably lead to time and money being spent on the policing of this activity. One must also consider the potential dangers involved in an underground drug market and the consequences that may arise.

The Netherlands should re-evaluate their latest decision to ban cannabis usage to tourists because, although it may make people loopy and anti-social, there were no previous problems besides maybe thousands of stoned people hanging out and chilling.