To understand the recent political developments around the sale of cannabis products in coffeeshops in the Netherlands, a brief explanation of the Dutch political climate and recent history is required.
The Netherlands are tradionally governed by a coalition of parties with a majority in parliament but during the last two years we saw an unusual minority government of the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the Conservative Liberals (VVD) sustained by the islamophobe party of Geert Wilders .
The Christian Democrats and the Islamophobe party had been taking an extremely conservative stance on drug policy, calling for the closure of all coffeeshops where the Conservative Liberals (VVD) call for better control and maintenance of the coffeeshops.
Furthermore, the Netherlands have received more or less constant crticism and international pressure on its cannabis policy by other european countries such as France and Germany, claiming that the coffeeshops encourage cannabis use in their countries. At the same time in the south of the Netherlands (notably Maastricht) the stream of notably French and Belgian tourists visiting coffeeshops to buy cannabis, causing parking problems, started a debate on coffeeshop tourism.
The minority government’s minister of Justice, VVD’s mr Opstelten, came with an ambitious plan to curb this situation. A weedpass, allowing access to Dutch coffeeshops and cannabis, only available to Dutch residents. A legal verdict on this clearly discriminatory plan was sought of the European Court and this Court ordealed that only under special circumstances such as disturbance of the public order such discrimination could be allowed.
But than the minority government lost its majority support in parliament forcing last summer’s elections resulting in an electorial landslide towards the center, where 2 parties have gained the vast majority and a situation with hardly a realistic alternative to their cooperation to form a government.
1. The VVD (Conservative Liberals) with 41 of the 150 parliamentary seats
2. The PvdA (Social Democrats) with 39 of the 150 parliamentary seats
The PvdA’s party program calls for a licensing sytem for the production and sale of cannabis such as (http://www.drugtext.nl/Cannabis/concept-cannabiswet-20.html) but in the negotiations over the forming of a new government with the VVD a compromise was produced in which loss of face for justice minister Opstelten remaining in office clearly played an important part.
The “weedpass” plan was dumped instantly because it is clear that the results are rather disastrous. Such as an increase in dealing in the streets and also Dutch residents refused to apply to register for the weedpass shifing the cannabis market away from the coffeeshops threatening the cornerstone of Dutch drug policy, the division of markets of soft and hard drugs.
At the same time many Dutch mayors including all the larger cities of the Netherlands (especially Amsterdam with over 200 coffeeshops) have strongly opposed the weedpass plan and banning of foreign visitor’s to come to the coffeeshops. It is estimated that around 10% of the tourists coming to Amsterdam, do this for the coffeeshops alone where around 30% claim they visit the Dutch capital to visit cultural sites such as musea and the coffeeshops. In other words the coffeeshops have become an important eceonomic factor.
The compromise calls for local solutions, allowing for example Maastricht to keep it’s coffeeshops closed for foreigners and Amsterdam to keep them open as it intended to do. Another interesting phenemenon is that the new room for local policies has supported towns such as Utrecht, Leeuwarden and Haarlem in their opinion that they want to curb the “backdoor” problem (production and delivery of cannabis to coffeeshops) and a system allowing and controlling cannabis production.
Is this the end of the discussion of the “residency criterion”, not allowing foreigners in coffeeshops? By no means, because several court cases are under way in the south of the Netherlands where local government will have to prove that discrimation was necessary and the best solution to curb possible nuissance and public order problems in compliance with the verdict of the European court.
Another issue worth mentioning is the potency of cannabis. The government compromise states that the amount of active ingredients in cannabis sold in coffeeshops should be maximised. A truly ambitious statement but totally out of sink with reality in a situation where the “backdoor”, production, provision and deliveries to coffeeshops is still strictly illegal. Any laboratory testing cannabis before it reaches the coffeeshop is accesory to crime and therefore there is simply no way for coffeeshops to comply with such demands even if it made any sense.