The word coffeeshop, conveniently created by the Dutch habit of running words together, has become synonymous with a special kind of coffee shop. These places do sell coffee and have one or more tables to sit and drink it but, their primary commodity is cannabis. These days they are licensed by the local council and subject to regulation. A strict minimum age of 18 is enforced.
How it Works
Coffee shops are not allowed to advertise, so you won't see a big sign saying "Marijuana for Sale". If you don't see a dealer's booth, just go up to the bar and ask to see the 'menu'. You will be presented with a list of the various different grasses and hashes available at a range of prices.
In some shops cannabis is sold by weight, in others by value. Where it is sold by weight the prices are per gram. There are 28 grams in an ounce (one shop, Grey Area, will actually sell 'quarters' and 'eighths' if you want). Where it is sold by value, the menu will show the quantity, in grams, that you'll get of each variety for a fixed price of, say, 20 euros.
Cannabis prices vary according to shop location and type. In the centre of Amsterdam prices tend to be a little higher especially in places that cater for tourists - that includes both rip-off joints and connoisseur's shops. Coffeeshops are not allowed to advertise their wares and most have removed their menus from their web sites.
There are hundreds of different varieties available. For more information on how their genetic makeup can influence their chemical composition and therefore effect on mind and body, click here.
Technically, the legal situation is quite complicated. International treaties preclude the Netherlands from legalising cannabis, even if they wanted to. Cannabis is illegal in Holland but possession of a small quantity is considered to be a misdemeanour rather than a criminal offence.
In practice you can carry up to 5 grams without fear of prosecution.
Regulations for coffee shops include:
The coffeeshop phenomenon began in the early 1970's. Even then, the Netherlands realised that the war on drugs was lost and that they had to find a way of reducing the impact of drugs on their society. To that end, they sought to draw a clear line between hard and soft drugs and concentrated their law enforcement effort on hard drugs. Those involved in smuggling and trading heroin and cocaine were to be hunted down and prosecuted; those addicted to heroin were to be treated as sick, like alcoholics; and those in possession of cannabis were to be, virtually, ignored.
The pioneering coffeeshops exploited this situation by openly selling cannabis. They were frequently busted but kept coming back for more. There is some debate about which was the first coffeeshop but the most famous was certainly The Bulldog established in 1975 by a guy called Henk de Vries in a former brothel in the Red Light district. The real first was probably Mellow Yellow (no longer under original management) and even before that The Melkweg (see clubs) was doing a bit of dealing. Rusland was another pioneer.
In 1976 the first steps were taken to decriminalise cannabis. The law was changed so that the possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis was no longer a criminal offence. Coffeeshops, however, remained completely illegal until 1980. Nevertheless, they continued to thrive and multiply.
1980 saw the beginning of the 'tolerance' policy towards coffeeshops. So long as there were never any hard drugs on the premises and they were reasonably discreet, they were generally left alone. Since then coffee shops have spread across Amsterdam and into most parts of the Netherlands. Initially, most Dutch people disapproved of coffee shops. Over time attitudes have softened and they are now widely accepted but the Netherlands is subject to constant international pressure from less enlightened governments like those in France, UK and US.
By the 1990's Amsterdam considered that it had too many coffee shops and that some were selling hard drugs. Encouraged by international pressure they decided that drastic action was required. At the same time, some of the better coffee shops were organising themselves into a union, the BCD (Bond van Cannabis Detaillisten). After some argument, a compromise was agreed by the city council that rather suited the members of the BCD.
In 1995 it was decided that the number of coffeeshops would be dramatically reduced by closing all those engaged in illegal activities. The remainder would then be licensed by the council. The number of licences was frozen and the licences made non-transferable in an effort to further reduce numbers over time. All coffeeshops now display a small green and white sticker that shows that they are licensed to sell cannabis.
A more conservative national government over the past few years has inspired local councils to strictly enforce regulations by closing any shops that slip up. Closed shops are not replaced so the overall number continues to diminish.
Outside Amsterdam, the situation varies between localities. As you might expect, coffeeshop density is highest where population is highest, that is, in the Randstad, the doughnut-shaped urban area formed by Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, The Hague and the countless cities and towns that join them. Even in this area there are considerable local variations, though. The policy towards coffeeshops is decided at a local level. In some towns there are none whatsoever. In others they are not allowed to display signs or are subject to other limitations.
From Hash to Nederwiet
In the early days, coffee shops sold mostly imported hashish (cannabis resin). Nowadays Dutch-grown grass dominates most menus (although hash is still available). The famous 'skunk' originated in America. When it was introduced into the Netherlands, the more relaxed environment and endemic Dutch horticultural skills led to this variety being further improved. Although Holland's climate is not particularly conducive to growing marijuana, the use of artificial lighting for indoor growing has become highly advanced. There are now hundreds of named varieties of seeds available and large-scale cultivation supplies the coffee shops with a good range of exotic herbs.
Growing up to half-a-dozen marijuana plants for home consumption is, effectively, legal. Commercial growing is, however, still illegal so the 'grow rooms' that supply the coffeeshops are still very secretive.
The Amsterdam Coffeeshop Directory has details of hundreds of coffee shops throughout the Netherlands (see directory).