When I got back to Amsterdam last week and checked into my headquarters at the 420 Café, I received an urgent message from the proprietor, Michael Veling, in response to my last column, which talked about attempts to restrict access to cannabis in the Netherlands:
Mike has owned and operated the 420 Café (formerly Café deKuil) for more than 20 years and has been a cannabis activist even longer. He's worked through the coffeeshop registration edicts of the mid-1990s, the imposition of the on-site 500-gram limit, the reduction from 30 to five allowable grams per consumer, the replacement of Dutch currency with the euro in 2000, the banning of alcohol sales in coffeeshops in 2007 (deKuil was a bar for 100 years or so), and the proscription against tobacco smoking the next year. Through it all, he has conformed with official policy while maintaining a successful establishment that supplies its patrons with the finest of weed and hash in a friendly, comfortable environment.
Mike was also a founder of Amsterdam's coffeeshop coalition, Cannabis Bond, and is a careful observer of the political scene as it pertains to the local cannabis culture. For several years he was active in the local branch of the (then) Dutch ruling party, the Christian Democrats (CDA) — sort of equivalent to the Republicans in America — and served a term as deputy to a CDA Amsterdam council member in order to force the party to accept a coffeeshop owner into its ranks despite the party's traditional stance against cannabis legalization.
So when Mike dismissed the current government's plan to turn the coffeeshops into private clubs, "accessible only to people officially living in the Netherlands" (DutchNews.nl) in order to "reduce drugs-related tourism and public nuisance," I felt better already, because the several people I'd spoken with before leaving town had been uniformly pessimistic about the chances for survival of the established system that works so well for everyone except the anti-drug fanatics in Parliament.
I'm still trying to get my head around the proposal, because it seems totally idiotic and so drastically un-Dutch. It seems to stem from a 2009 study by a government commission, which found that "the bigger the coffee shops get, the more likely they are to be in the hands of organized crime. To that end, the commission recommended cafes become smaller and should only sell to locals," according to DutchNews.nl.
"The government is also planning to increase efforts to drive organized crime out of the production and trade of marijuana. ... The illegal growing industry is thought to be worth some 2 billion euros [$2,840,000,000] a year. According to the Dutch newspaper Telegraaf, some 40,000 people are involved in marijuana cultivation and some 5,000 plantations are busted every year."
Duh! Under the present system, where retail sale of cannabis is permitted but cultivation and distribution remain strictly illegal (beyond the five plants adults are allowed to cultivate for their own use), growing marijuana is organized crime per se.
If cannabis were fully legalized, organized crime would be replaced by an above-ground industry that would employ thousands of people and generate enormous tax revenues for the Dutch coffers from the cannabis businesses themselves, the personal income taxes of the owners and operators, and the employment and earnings taxes on the workers.
The current government seems to have been emboldened by a ruling from European Union (EU) Advocate General Yves Bot, who said the Netherlands was within its rights to ban tourists from coffee shops if the move is necessary to protect public order and reduce the nuisance caused by drugs tourism. Bot felt further that the Dutch ban would contribute to the EU's efforts to combat the illegal drugs trade.
The border town of Maastricht has already closed its coffee shops to tourists on the "public nuisance" tip, while Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom have banned coffeeshops altogether. Currently the Council of State, Holland's highest court, has appealed to the European judiciary to determine whether the Maastricht ban conflicts with EU laws.
Finally, DutchNews.nl reports with a straight face, "Ministers say they expect the closure of coffee shops to tourists will lead to a reduction in drugs-related tourism. Nevertheless, 'adequate measures' will be taken by police and officials to make sure the move does not lead to an increase in street dealing." Hmmm, sounds like they wanna embrace the American Dream of a real War on Drugs with a powerful police state apparatus to hound the tourists and their street-level suppliers.
Let's get one thing straight: When they say "drugs-related tourism" they're talking about people who come to Holland to smoke pot — or, in the case of the border towns, to cop some weed over the counter and take it back to Belgium or Germany or France and smoke it at home. If my memory serves, the little city of Maastricht itself took in about 13 million euros (about $18,500,000) last year from "drugs-related tourism."
My informants, including Michael Veling, Ravi Dronkers of the Sensi Seeds combine and Sidney Daniels of Ceres Seeds and the Hempshopper, have pointed out that the figures cited by the Telegraaf — 40,000 people involved in marijuana cultivation generating 2 billion worth of business — are ridiculously underestimated, and predict that the numbers would increase exponentially if cultivation and wholesale distribution were fully legalized.
The really sick thing is that this reactionary move by the Dutch government takes place in the face of the recent call by the official Global Commission on Drug Policy for an end to the War on Drugs, to shift "from criminalization to public health and from incarceration to ... decriminalization to legalization and regulation."
There has been a long string of officially commissioned studies that have basically reached the same conclusion, but this international commission includes "four former presidents, United Nations dignitaries, authors and intellectuals, health and security officials, NGO directors and entrepreneurs."
The run-up to the War on Drugs began 50 years ago, in 1961, when the United Nations initiated the UN Single Drug Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Ten years later, on June 17, 1971, Richard Nixon declared: "America's public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out ... worldwide offensive."
"So began a war," Charles M. Blow wrote in The New York Times, "that has waxed and waned, sputtered and sprinted, until it became an unmitigated disaster, an abomination of justice and a self-perpetuating, trillion-dollar economy of wasted human capital, ruined lives and decimated communities ... one of the biggest, most expensive, most destructive social policy experiments in American history: The war on drugs."
Since 1971, more than 40 million arrests have been conducted for drug-related offenses. And, according to UN estimates, between 1998 and 2008, annual consumption has grown by 34.5 percent for opiates, 27 percent for cocaine and 8.5 percent for cannabis, whose users worldwide number 160 million.
That's an awful lot of us, and maybe our screams of pain as victims of the War on Drugs are beginning to be heard and maybe even heeded. It's about time!
—420 Café, Amsterdam