Could Amsterdam’s days as a cannabis capital be numbered? – News 24

On an average night in the De Wallen district of Amsterdam, the streets are packed with tourists – often on their worst behavior.

“We’re dealing with people throwing up, screaming, peeing, pooping,” said Arjan Welles, until recently a neighborhood resident. “This part of town has only one purpose: to please tourists.”

Travelers come to De Wallen – better known as the red light district – for many reasons: sex shows, bachelor parties, pub crawls. But one attraction has proven to be more important than all: the city’s iconic coffeeshops, where legal cannabis has been sold to tourists for decades.

A recent survey found that around half of the city’s 20 million annual visitors say visit a coffeeshop is one of the main reasons to travel to the city – fueling an industry worth nearly one billion euros ($1.4 billion), according to an estimate.

The De Wallen district of Amsterdam, better known to tourists as the red light district, on a crowded night. (Olaf Kraak Fotografie/Stop de Gekte)

For Welles and his advocacy group Stop of Gekte (Stop the Madness), coffeeshops are a problem, contributing to the neighborhood’s free party vibe. But they don’t want to see cannabis banned — instead, they want Amsterdam to enforce a law known as i-criterionwhich would limit its sale to only local residents.

Despite a petition with hundreds of supportersa lengthy debate in council and the full backing of the city’s mayor and chief of police, the initiative was not passed again this fall due to fears it could lead to a black market explosion.

And yet, there are reasons to believe that the era of drug tourism in the city is coming to an end.

Amid a broader legalization trend in Europe, the Netherlands is reassessing its relationship with cannabis – and could upend the coffeeshop industry in the process.

People sit in one of Amsterdam’s approximately 160 coffeeshops, establishments where adults can legally buy and consume cannabis products. (Jasper Juneen/Getty Images)

The backdoor problem

Since it was first popularized in the Netherlands by American GIs and jazz musicians, cannabis use has been legally tolerated in the country to some extent since the 1970s.

Initially, this tolerance led to a proliferation of coffeeshops – more than 500, at any one time, in Amsterdam alone. In the anarchic golden age of the 1980s, Henry Dekker, now the owner of five coffeeshops, got his start.

“A sheet of wood and a few crates was the bar,” he said. “The coffeeshops were really hiding places for the unemployed…to rest between fights with the police. So it was quite a rebellious environment.

The man is holding a cannabis plant.
Henry Dekker owns five coffeeshops in Amsterdam. He got his start in the 1980s, when he said cafes were a “rebellious environment” compared to today. (Submitted by Henry Decker)

In the 1990s, Dutch attitudes shifted towards stronger policing, and the coffeeshop industry quickly professionalized. Today, “the type of customer is more mainstream,” Dekker said. “You see young people and old people from 18 to 88 years old, men and women.”

But there is a problem. Selling and consuming cannabis is legal in the Netherlands, but growing or possessing more than half a kilo remains illegal. This makes supplying coffeeshops a criminal enterprise – known in the Netherlands as the “backdoor problem”.

The Netherlands, in my opinion, are already left behind.– Onnick Jessayan, founder of Greenmeister

“It’s always like this game of cat and mouse,” said Onnick Jessayan, a cannabis industry insider and founder of greenmeister, an app that offers reviews of coffeeshops and cannabis strains. “Dutch cannabis dispensaries are still forced to buy from the black market.”

According to an influential report In the city of Amsterdam, this legal loophole has encouraged links with organized crime, which finds in coffeeshops a convenient way to convert black market money into legal income. “There’s no faster way to launder money than having a coffeeshop,” said Robbert Overmeer, an Amsterdam resident and advocate for the i-criterion.

Meanwhile, owners like Dekker, trying to run a legal business, are taking significant risks. In 2021, he faces criminal charges and lost 45 kilograms of stock for exceeding the legal limit of 500 grams, despite its stores legally selling “10 or 20 kilograms a week”.

Cannabis plants pulled from the ground lie in a heap in a large greenhouse.  A man adds another to the pile.
Police dismantled a marijuana plantation of 10,000 to 15,000 plants, in a glass greenhouse in Roelofarendsveen, the Netherlands, in 2011. Although it is legal to possess and consume small amounts of cannabis, the mass culture is still prohibited. (Valerie Kuypers/AFP/Getty Images)

Supplying his stores, he said, is like “a sort of James Bond operation that we have to run every week”, involving shady deals in apartment parking lots. Getting caught again could mean the forced closure of its stores – and 70 employees suddenly out of work.

The backdoor problem is also an obstacle for investors. Dekker says more and more foreign companies want to buy from the market – but they “want to buy the premises, the name, without being involved”, he said, “because the laws in the Netherlands don’t are not up to their standards”.

This left some in the cannabis industry feeling pessimistic about his future in the Netherlands.

“The Netherlands, in my opinion, are already being left behind,” Jessayan said. At exhibitions across Europe, he says, he encounters cannabis growers and traders who can treat the product as “a craft, like… Swiss Army knives or chocolate.”

“It’s something the Netherlands could have had, had they just embraced cannabis cultivation,” he said. “But they didn’t. They have always considered it illegal.

Legal cannabis — but when?

After decades of tolerance, the Dutch government may finally be ready to fully embrace cannabis – within the confines of a government program.

In 2019, the government laid the foundations for what it calls the “controlled cannabis supply chain experiment”: a four-year pilot project involving ten government-approved producers who will exclusively supply coffeeshops in ten medium-sized municipalities.

As in Canada, producers are subject to rigorous quality testing and legal requirements while facing installation costs that can run into the tens of millions. Unlike Canada, they can only be allowed to operate for four years if the experiment ends as originally planned.

“It’s a different sort of step in the dark, a bit of a brave move,” said Alistair Moore, whose consultancy, Hanway Associates, works with some of the licensed growers in the Netherlands. “There is enormous pressure on these ten licenses.”

An architectural design of Linsboer's facility in Leystad, showing a large square building and a shipping truck.
Linsboer factory in Lelystad. As one of 10 selected legal growers, Linsboer will supply coffeeshops with some of the first legally grown cannabis in the Netherlands. (Submitted by Ralph Blaes)

The experience got off to a bad start. Delays in selecting growers, background checks and producing sufficient stock mean it is not expected to start until 2024.

Still, Moore and others see reason for optimism. Ralph Blaes, founding member of Linsboera Lelystad-based licensed producer, said the delays are because the government wants to “maximize the chance of success”.

Unlike Canada, Blaes said, the Dutch government is slowly rolling out legalization, in some markets, to encourage a diversity of suppliers with a guaranteed market for their products.

“They’re not the fastest, the Dutch government, but they really do it like a rock,” he said.

A cashier weighs marijuana for a customer at a cafe in downtown Amsterdam on January 8, 2021
Jesayan fears that legal suppliers will struggle to find the variety available on the black market. Its Amsterdam cannabis database includes over 5,000 strains. (Evert Elzinga/ANP/AFP/Getty Images)

Others are more skeptical. Jessayan, along with Greenmeister, is concerned about the limited availability of strains compared to the black market. Dekker, the owner of the coffeeshop, fears that small growers who have taken risks to supply him will eventually be “evicted”.

Plus, he argues, “it’s better to do it on a small scale – where people play classical music for their plants, instead of filling them with fertilizer.”

The last days of a drug capital?

The Netherlands are not alone to reinvent its relationship with cannabis. Germany, Czech Republic, Swissand Luxemburg are all on the road to legalization or are moving forward with their own legal sourcing pilot projects. Malta has fully legalized cannabis Last year.

For cannabis industry insiders like Moore, it’s a sign that “the consensus has changed in Europe – that it’s not something we can control, and it’s not something we can control. ignore”.

Moore hopes the result will be a more “mature” conversation, about how “legalization isn’t just for people who love cannabis and want it to be seen in society, but also for people who don’t. don’t like it”.

This includes people like Welles and members of Stop of Gektewho still hopes that Amsterdam will do everything possible to make it “much less interesting to come to the Netherlands just for the cannabis”.

With bigger neighbors like Germany set to legalize cannabis by 2024it may not take a i-criterion to accomplish this. One way or another, Amsterdam’s days as a drug capital may already be numbered.

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Could Amsterdam’s days as a cannabis capital be numbered? – News 24

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