The first week of the new year is coming to a close and Amsterdam’s Mayor has wasted no time in proposing legislation with the potential to ban tourists from visiting Amsterdam’s (in)famous Coffeeshops.
According to information from the City of Amsterdam, on the morning of Friday, 8 January, 2021, Mayor Halsema has sent her latest proposal for reform in Amsterdam’s tourism sector to the city council with the hope that new legislation will lead to “a small-scale cannabis market with less demand, less supply and local regulation of the back door.”
Amsterdam has long been known as a city of freedoms. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, guests would flock to the city in search of the hottest party or the opportunity to visit the region’s famous cannabis coffeeshops and red light district window brothels. There is much more to this famous city. Amsterdam has a rich cultural history and is home to many museums and works of art. In recent years, there has been a push from local residents as well as city officials to reduce disruptive tourism in the city center, with the hopes of making Amsterdam a better place to live.
Over the past several years, the city of Amsterdam has debated adopting a “resident-only” policy, known as the i-criterion, when it comes to cannabis coffeeshops. Similar policies have been introduced in some of the Dutch border cities, such as the city of Maastricht, and have been perceived a success by many.
A 5-year, 2020 – 2025 plan is in development for Amsterdam, with many hoping that the city will become attractive to a more refined type of tourist as a result. This plan includes 88 measures directed at reducing “the wrong kind of tourism” in Amsterdam’s city center. Such measures include the possibility of reducing or banning Airbnb rentals in the city center, repurposing buildings formerly utilized by tourists, and reducing the number and hours of coffee shops and prostitution windows operating in the city.
“The question is whether Amsterdam wants to retain its appeal for so-called cannabis tourists. After years of failure to enforce, if it is decided to introduce the residence criterion, it will have to be properly substantiated. . . The benefits will be particularly visible in the long term if it is clear abroad that Amsterdam is not a sanctuary for cannabis tourism (not even on the street).”
2020 statistics from the OIS suggest that 57% of those visiting Amsterdam’s Red Light District identified the city’s cannabis-serving coffeeshops as a very important aspect of their trip to Amsterdam.
“It is in the interests of public health, the protection of young people and the social relationships in the city that the Amsterdam cannabis market is small-scale and transparent. This requires cutting demand, reducing supply, while moving towards further regulation of the “back door”. Transparency will be able to increase through a (phased) regulation of the cannabis chain, starting with a
milder administrative enforcement regime for, for example, storage and transport of cannabis for the coffee shop”, the city said in a statement. “By reviewing and limiting chain formation, the small scale of the cannabis market is promoted. A more far-reaching measure is the introduction of a residence criterion, which will significantly reduce the demand for cannabis. None of these measures is without risks of negative side effects and requires careful implementation, a transition period and monitoring.”
Mayor Halsema’s plans for Amsterdam’s coffeeshops seem to culminate with the ban on non-residents in Amsterdam’s shops. Along the way, the mayor plans to offer incentives to the coffeeshops, beginning in the form of “quality marks”. When awarded, a quality mark will enable a coffeeshop to increase the amount of product the shop can physically in stock on location (currently 500 grams), which would result in the shop needing fewer potentially-risky courriers to resupply the shop throughout the day. The mayor’s quality-control measures will be accompanied by legislation to limit the number of coffeeshops which can work together as a chain in an effort to discourage monopolies. Additionally, the mayor hopes to make the cannabis-coffeeshop supply chain a more transparent process and safer for all involved, including the cannabis consumer, despite research cited by the city of Amsterdam itself, suggesting that limiting coffeeshop access to Dutch residents will result in more individuals taking to the streets to purchase “soft drugs” as cannabis is classified in the Nehterlands. The study also suggests the connection between hard and soft drug dealers and the danger such a relation can pose to the “young and vulnerable”.
The Mayor’s full statement to the Amsterdam City council can be read below.
These measures will begin being introduced during a carefully monitored transition period and only after further negotiations between the mayor and city council.
The mayor will discuss these proposed measures with the city council later this month. Clearly, they will have a lot to talk about.
"Dear members of the city council,
In the spring of 2020, I committed to exploring whether the cannabis market can be made more manageable and transparent. With 166 coffee shops, Amsterdam has almost 30% of all coffee shops in the Netherlands within its municipal boundaries. Research by research bureau Breuer & Intraval shows that Amsterdam provides an answer to part of the demand for Dutch residents and foreign tourists. Taking into account the forecasts for population and tourism growth (which have not been adjusted for the effects of the COVID pandemic), the expectation is that, if policy remains unchanged, coffee shops will be added in 2025.
In 2010, the ministers of VWS and J&V spoke out for a small-scale and local cannabis market, preventing cannabis use among young people and reducing drug tourism. The Amsterdam board has explicitly agreed to this and has tried to reduce the size of the market and make it manageable by introducing smoking bans, closing coffee shops and introducing a distance criterion between coffee shops and schools. Although the supply in coffee shops has declined (in 20 years from 283 to 166), this has not prevented the demand for cannabis (in particular due to the growth of tourism) from growing.
Not only is the cannabis market currently at odds with the municipality's own objectives of small scale and manageability, the current and still increasing demand has negative effects on the social relationships in the city. Due to persistent demand, the soft drug trade is increasing, while there is no insight into the chain from production to delivery of the cannabis to the coffee shops. With the modest sales and turnover, more money is flowing from the tolerated sale of cannabis to the non-tolerated illegal cannabis cultivation circuit. In addition, the police have serious suspicions that, if the interests increase and more money is used in it, this circuit will mix with organizations that are active in hard drug trafficking. At the same time, the hard drug environment has become professionalized and hardened considerably, with more frequent violence, intimidation and undermining of the legal economy and society.
In addition, we can conclude that the supply of coffee shops in the city center is a strong incentive for foreign tourists. A research report previously submitted to your council showed that for 57% of the foreign respondents in the Red Light District / Singel area, a visit to a coffee shop was a (very) important reason to come to Amsterdam. Not infrequently, this form of soft drug tourism causes nuisance to residents.
Your council has been in favor of a regulated 'back door' of coffee shops for some time (as an alternative to the non-tolerated chain from production to delivery of cannabis to coffee shops) and the coalition parties have included in the Coalition Agreement to investigate which (soft) drugs can be decriminalized and want to make a case for this in the government.
Precisely in view of the danger of mixing soft and hard drug trade (and the violence and undermining that goes with it) and for the sake of public health, the separation of markets for soft and hard drugs is of great importance. This applies to sales, distribution and cultivation. As stated in the memorandum, regulating the "back door" creates tension with national and international legislation. At the same time, the size of the Amsterdam soft drugs market, the complexity, the major business interests involved and the uncontrollability as a result also stand in the way of further regulation. Although there were several reasons why the city council and the triangle had to abandon the 'Experiment closed coffee shops' announced by the cabinet, the mandatory integral of all coffee shops was an important participation. On the scale of Amsterdam with the large number of coffee shops was not feasible. In other words, making the soft drugs market manageable and smaller-scale (by stopping growth and limiting demand) is not opposed to the desire for more far-reaching regulation, but is a certain condition for it.
Towards a manageable cannabis market
As a triangle, we are very aware that the discussion about soft drugs policy and coffee shops is politically charged and often leads to opposing positions in your council. At the same time, we assume agreement on the goals of municipal policy to reduce cannabis use among young people, protect the soft drug market from the negative effects of the hard drug trade and reduce soft drug tourism.
Recent years have shown that reducing the supply (by reducing the number of coffee shops and introducing a distance criterion) is not enough if the demand for soft drugs is not affected. With the growth of tourism, a smaller but still very significant number of coffee shops has seen an increase in sales and turnover. This means that inevitably the demand for cannabis must also be reduced. For the triangle, this means that the city's appeal to tourists for whom a visit to the coffee shops is (very) important must be significantly reduced. The study by Breuer & Intraval cited above shows that the number of coffee shops required to serve the local market is limited to 68 in 2020 and 73 in 2025.
The attached memorandum "Towards a manageable cannabis market" explores the ways in which transparency and small scale can be promoted, but also how (practical) bottlenecks in the current tolerance policy can be resolved. It is also taken into account that there is sufficient choice for consumers and that entrepreneurs who want to earn a living legally have sufficient support from the competent authorities.
On the basis of the exploration in the memorandum, the triangle proposes to take three meaningful steps simultaneously. These will not be implemented overnight, but require a transition period, thorough preparation (by means of an implementation plan) and guidance through scientific research into the desired and undesirable effects.
Based on the need to reduce demand and make the supply smaller and more local and thus achieve a manageable and transparent cannabis market, the triangle proposes three steps:
1. The (phased) local regulation of the cannabis market, by establishing an Amsterdam coffee shop hallmark. For coffee shops affiliated to the quality mark, a milder administrative enforcement regime will apply for (initially) transport of cannabis to the coffee shop, storage of cannabis for the coffee shop and in the case of a larger trading stock than 500 grams in the coffee shop. With this, gradually and in consultation with the national government, the regulation of the "back door" can gradually come into the picture;
2. Limiting the chain formation of coffee shops (eg by setting a maximum number of coffee shops per chain to be determined). In this way monopoly positions are prevented and complex and non-transparent corporate and financing structures are counteracted.
3. Enforcing the resident criterion for coffee shops. The I-criterion for coffee shops means that only residents of the Netherlands may be admitted to a coffee shop. The triangle has an eye for additional issues such as enforcement and a possible shift from soft drug trade to the illegal market, but nevertheless considers its introduction as feasible. It is emphatically taken into account that, as far as the triangle is concerned, keeping tourists out of the coffee shops should not be an end in itself but a means of bringing the local cannabis market more into line with other parts of the country and the appeal of Amsterdam as a stopping place of soft drug tourism. In this way, the market becomes more manageable, which is in the service of further regulation of the cannabis market.
As mentioned, we realize that the steps to be taken are meaningful and require careful and thorough preparation. The introduction of the I-criterion in particular could have as an undesirable side effect a (temporary) shift to the illegal cannabis market. A reasonable transition period must also be taken into account. The triangle therefore wants to use this time to conduct research into the possible undesirable effects of the measures and the way in which these effects can be mitigated.
I would like to discuss these proposals with you in order to make agreements in the triangle about further research and to be able to draw up an implementation plan for a manageable soft drugs market.
We will submit these to you again.
On behalf of the Amsterdam triangle,
Zoe has integrated her background as social worker, event organizer, and scientist into the news and media lifestyle brand, Audio Kush, which she co-founded in 2018. An expat and travel enthusiast, she enjoys telling stories which explore society and delve into the mind. A major proponent of cannabis culture and the medicinal potential of marijuana, Zoe works to educate and normalize cannabis as a healing plant.