Tourists help themselves to a joint in Amsterdam
On a Friday night in The Hague, four tourists were roaming the city looking for one of its so-called “coffee shops”.
“You cannot be in The Netherlands and not enjoy a joint,” said Rachid, leading his friends through the centre of the city. The streets were relatively quiet for a Friday night because of heavy rain.
After a 30-minute walk, Rachid, who is Moroccan, and his friends reached one of the coffee shops, which despite their name are actually dedicated to selling drugs. It was crowded, the music could be heard from outside.
As they sat at a small table inside, cracking jokes and puffing their what the Dutch like to call “weed”, they tried to imagine what it would be like to legally do drugs in their respective countries, in Europe or in the Arab world.
“But it is not even imaginable. It would not be tolerated. It would be a mess,” said Rachid. “Here, people have mostly accepted the coffee shops' existence as a part of daily life. I do not think I could imagine the Netherlands without its in-your-face coffee shops.”
The Netherlands’ lenient approach to drugs has made coffee shops part of the tourist experience for most of those heading there.
Other visitors, especially from neighbouring European countries, cross the borders just to buy supplies to take home.
That trade worries both the neighbouring governments and the Dutch, who are united in branding marijuana as a danger to public health. A panel appointed by the Dutch government warned last year that the risks from strong marijuana included addiction and psychotic reactions.
While it took Rachid sometime to find a coffee shop in The Hague, the country’s political capital, it was different in Amsterdam, where there are plenty of places near the central station offering cannabis.
There are more than 200 coffee shops in Amsterdam, where marijuana and other cannabis products are openly sold and consumed.
It is common to see groups entering the coffee shops with their baggage, indicating that they either want a goodbye smoke or have come straight from the train’s arrival platform.
Last year, the government introduced a ban on foreign visitors purchasing cannabis, citing a concern that some tourists visit just for the drugs. Coffee shops now have the right to ask visitors to prove that they live in the country.
However, several cities – including Amsterdam – are not enforcing the rule, though they have other new restrictions this year, including a requirement that coffee shops be at least 250 metres from schools.
In a coffee shop overlooking one of Amsterdam’s canals, Max is relieved that the ban was not enforced. He has been working there for six years, and says that his job depends largely on tourists.
“As you see, many of our customers are tourists, many come regularly, some even every month,” he said, as he handed a group of young men six joints of marijuana. Each costs 3 euros (Bt120).
The prices get higher with different flavours and strengths.
“What is wrong with having tourists come to us specifically to get a joint or two?” asked Max, who was more than happy to talk provided his full name was not reported.
The fear of losing their income had prompted 19 coffee shop owners to file a lawsuit against the government last year, saying that the ban discriminated against EU rights of free movement.
However, a court in The Hague rejected their case, saying there was no such discrimination and that the ban would reduce drug tourism and drug-related crime.
Officially, possession and sale of weed is illegal in the Netherlands, but the policy of tolerance, which is supposed to undermine drug traffickers, allows a person to be in possession of a maximum 5 grams for personal use, while coffee shops are allowed possession of a maximum of 500 grams.
People are forbidden to smoke marijuana while driving or walking in the street.
Last year, several southern Dutch regions shut local coffee shop doors to non-residents. The move came amid concern that opening them to foreigners was leading to an increasing drug trade, smuggling and crime rate.
Guests who are not smokers are enticed to try cannabis-laced food, which includes brownies, space cakes and special cookies.
Some coffee shops also sell cappuccino with marijuana in it.
Their prices are a bit more expensive than normal cakes and coffee at a Dutch cafe.
It is not clear how these items will be dealt with under the new laws.
The space cake was a hit with Susan and her friends, who sat in the outdoor area of a coffee shop. The group of Americans were in Amsterdam, as part of their holiday tour in Europe, and decided to try it after they were amused by the warning written on it: “Do not panic!”
“We are still not panicking. It said it takes time to work, so we’ll stay here as long as it takes,” she said, taking another bite of her piece.
They came here after they finished shopping for some souvenirs for friends. The bag was full of cups with either the flag colours, cannabis pictures or green lighters. They also got T-shirts with different logos on them.
One had a picture of Bob Marley saying “Smoke the herb man” and another had different types of cannabis and read, “What shall I smoke today?”