When Amsterdam comes to mind, so do the many reasons to visit the Netherlands’ capital; its Museum District, its storied old buildings, its bicycle culture, and – of course – its cannabis-filled “coffee shops.” For decades, Amsterdam’s relatively liberal cannabis laws and subsequent cannabis cafes have offered a major draw for cannabis craving tourists from around the world. But that could be changing.
Last month, Amsterdam mayor Femke Halsema proposed a plan to ban tourists from the city’s weed cafes. Expected to get the green light from the city, the plan would allow cannabis products to be sold strictly to Dutch nationals and residents of the Netherlands. Furthermore, under the plan, Amsterdam’s 166 coffee shops would be cut to 68 – enough to cater to local demand only.
The move is intended to help curb the overwhelming number of visitors Amsterdam experienced in pre-COVID times and moving forward when mass tourism becomes a reality again. The city doesn’t want an influx of tourists – and hasn’t been afraid to show it. In 2019, the Dutch tourist board even released an advertising campaign that actually encouraged tourists to visit other spots in the Netherlands instead of Amsterdam.
This came a year after the city removed the iconic, double tap-worthy “I Amsterdam” sign from outside of the Rijksmuseum – an increasingly popular (see overrun) selfie spot. It also came not long after guided tours of Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District were outlawed. In fact, Mayor Helsema wants to do away with the gritty Red Light District all together, moving the city’s “sex zone” to its outskirts.
These moves – and the mayor’s own statements – have made it clear that especially unwelcome are the younger, rowdier tourists who are presumably drawn to the city’s sex-oriented businesses and its relaxed weed culture. The fact that Airbnb-style rentals were also banned from the historic city centre drove this home. Airbnb and cheap European flights have undoubtedly facilitated an influx of this demographic of younger party-seeking travellers in the past decade.
But Amsterdam officials say they would rather attract culture-cravers who visit for the city’s museums, history, architecture, and restaurants, as opposed to its cannabis culture (because, apparently, the two interests are mutually excusive?).
In addition to catering to a different type of tourist, Mayor Halsema also cited a desire to undermine criminal organizations that control the drug trade, pointing to an underground criminal network behind Amsterdam’s cannabis cafes. Though the sale of cannabis is prohibited in the city’s coffee shops, growing it is not. Therefore, coffee shops buy their product from illegal growers who cultivate it locally or smuggle it in from other parts of the world.
Opponents, however, say the plan will simply drive drug transactions to the streets – never a good look – creating even more problems. Others say that Amsterdam’s cannabis cafes are peaceful and part of its culture for both locals and tourists to enjoy the same way they would a restaurant. Some point to the city’s bars and their boozy offerings as the real cause of reckless and unfavourable tourist behaviour. Not weed.
With the growing acceptance of cannabis in parts of the world, it’s important to note that today’s cannabis consumer deviates greatly from the stereotypical image of a washed-up stoner stuck to the couch with a pizza box within reach. The legalization of cannabis and recent erosion of the stigma surrounding weed use has resulted in cannabis users of all ages, backgrounds, and income brackets.
The point is, the type of tourist who visits a cannabis-filled coffee shop in Amsterdam may very well be the same tourist who’s dropping dollars on the city’s five-star hotels and restaurants, and exploring Amsterdam’s museums. A well-travelled middle-aged couple, for example, may simply want to stop in to a cannabis cafe for an afternoon pick-me-up before strolling Amsterdam’s canal-lined streets or photographing its stunning architecture.
For Canadians, of course, the ability to purchase weed freely, legally, and conveniently in Amsterdam isn’t a novelty anymore. A handful of dispensaries open up shop throughout Canada on what seems like a weekly basis (albeit we do lack the legal ability to consume cannabis on site at weed cafes). At the same time, however, Canadian cannabis users who’ve grown accustomed to its widespread availability (i.e. are now avid users) may not want to travel to cities where weed isn’t legal and readily available.
Once travel restrictions are lifted (presuming that happens this year), travellers have some time to hit up Amsterdam’s cannabis cafes; the new policy won’t go into effect until 2022 at the earliest. Here’s to hoping it goes up in smoke.