The History of Dutch Cannabis Coffeeshops

Seattle has long been synonymous with coffee, and nowadays the city with a distinctive coffee culture is crafting a burgeoning reputation for cannabis culture. What might happen when you combine the two, coffeeshop and cannabis? Sounds like a great idea, right? Like it was meant to be?

In assessing the true potential of this endeavor, where else could we begin than with the elder statesman of not only the cannabis coffeeshop industry, but also cannabis legalization: the Netherlands. We’ll take a look at the context in which cannabis coffeeshops emerged and the changes they have undergone over time. What valuable lessons can be learned from the Dutch cannabis experience, and how might they apply in the context of the United States?

How Are Cannabis Coffeeshops Legal in the Netherlands?

Typical dutch houses in the Center of Amsterdam

Those famous Amsterdam coffeeshops haven’t always been around; like most forms of progress, it took some social evolution (and updated cannabis laws) to lead to today’s current cannabis landscape. The current Dutch policy could be summed up in one word: pragmatism. Reacting to the increase of psychoactive substances in the 1960s, Dutch authorities had initially responded repressively. However, in 1969, the Public Prosecutor’s office published an enforcement guideline, shifting the focus of policing away from cannabis use to hard drugs such as heroin.

The Dutch have a history of taking practical approaches to controversial subjects; their drug policy comprises of tolerance and the use of the expediency principle. The term Gedogen is at the heart of Dutch policy regarding cannabis and is associated with the Polder Model. In a political context, “Gedogen” means to tolerate or even permit an activity or behavior that is officially illegal. Enforcement of the law is considered to be a means to an end, not an end in itself, where rules are only enforced if the overall effects of doing so are considered to be positive.

Described as “a pragmatic recognition of pluriformity” and “cooperation despite differences,” the Polder Model is consensus decision-making, meaning the practice of governance in which negotiations and compromises are seen as beneficial. In this context, rules and laws frequently serve as guidelines. For coffeeshops, this means that they are allowed to sell cannabis if they adhere to regulations, even though it is still technically an illegal drug.

Separation of Soft From Hard Drugs

Coffeeshop sign in Amsterdam

According to the committee, the negative effects of the criminal prosecution of cannabis users outweighed the possible benefits of punishment, and decriminalization of cannabis was proposed.

The idea that the separation of the two sub-cultures would be beneficial to wider society was central, early on, in forming Dutch policy on cannabis. In 1969, a study by Herman Cohen, cast doubts on the theory of cannabis as a gateway drug and argued that by separating the cannabis scene from that surrounding other drugs, cannabis users would be protected from exposure to harder drugs such as heroin.

A report released by the Hulsman Committee in 1969 proposed treating drug problems as a public health issue. It recommended that the intensity of law enforcement be determined by the danger a substance presented to the individual and society. Subsequently, the 1972 Baan Committee report, for the first time, made a distinction between substances with an “unacceptable risk” and “other substances.” According to the committee, the negative effects of the criminal prosecution of cannabis users outweighed the possible benefits of punishment, and decriminalization of cannabis was proposed.

The Holland Pop Festival in June 1970 in Rotterdam may be considered the first large scale implementation of the 1969 Public Prosecutor’s office enforcement guideline. Rather than arresting cannabis consumers, the authorities decided to observe the masses. Gradually, an informal policy of tolerance would emerge.

With the revision of the Opium Act in 1976, the Dutch government brought all substances classified in the United Nations’ 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs under the new Opium Act and introduced two lists of substances: “substances with an unacceptable risk to the health of the user” and “cannabis products.” The new Opium Act formalized the policies in the 1969 enforcement guidelines. Drug policy would be coordinated by the Ministry of Health, and drug use would be treated using medical and social approaches rather than criminal ones.

The Emergence of Coffeeshops

People leaving Hash and Maihuana museum

By around 1970, soft drugs were being sold flagrantly in youth facilities such as music venues by “house dealers.” The government feared that closing these meeting places might lead to the spread of cannabis dealing to seedier areas and so risk exposing cannabis users to harder drugs. In this climate, the first commercial cannabis outlets began to emerge. A ‘tea house” in Amsterdam called Mellow Yellow chanced their arm in 1972. Instead of selling from behind a counter, the dealer posed as a customer at the bar.

In 1975, Rusland and The Bulldog opened what would be the first “coffeeshops.” These businesses soon established house rules such as the banning of hard drugs. As long as cannabis wasn’t traded in an overt manner or didn’t result in public nuisance, the authorities left well enough alone.

It was not until the early 1990s that the Dutch government responded with regulations for coffeeshops. Their policy of restraint had allowed for pragmatism in dealing with the emerging businesses. New guidelines for the Opium Act had been published in 1979. These guidelines created a special position for “house dealers” at youth centers. The tolerance criteria developed for “house dealers” would be applied to coffeeshops, but while they provided some legal wiggle room for establishments, the guidelines lacked specificity.

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Still, the conditions did not prevent the rise in the number of coffeeshops throughout the 1980s. Pioneered in Amsterdam, the AHOJ-G criteria were introduced nationally in 1991 but were only officially enacted in 1994. The initial criteria were formulated to leave room for interpretation by the municipalities:

  • A – No more than low profile signposting of the facility
  • H – No hard drugs to be sold or held on the premises
  • O – No nuisances such as loitering, littering, and noise
  • J – No sales to under-aged customers and no admittance of under-aged customers to coffeeshops
  • G – Transaction size would be limited to 30 grams per person per coffeeshop per day

In Part 2 of our series exploring the rise of Dutch cannabis coffeeshops, we’ll address the common head-scratcher that is the difference between “coffee shop,” “coffee house,” and “coffeeshop,” and what happened when the Dutch government issued an oxymoronic drug policy document centered on “continuity and change.”



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