Amsterdam Wants to Ban Weed for Tourists

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It’s one of the freak phenomena of lockdown, akin to wild boar rampaging through Barcelona or mountain goats roaming the Welsh town of Llandudno—but in the case of the Red Light District, as Amsterdam’s medieval city center is best known, the pandemic has brought spells of unexpected calm. With spliff-toting weekenders grounded in their own countries, delighted locals have reclaimed the canal-lined streets of their own city.

Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema hopes it’ll stay this way: On January 8, she called for a ban on foreigners buying cannabis at the city’s famed coffee shops once the destination reopens to international travelers. (The city is under lockdown until at least February 9.) As in several Dutch cities including Maastricht, a “residence criterion” would limit sales to Dutch residents and nationals.

It’s part of a wider mission to redress the imbalance between visitors and locals, with Halsema citing a government survey suggesting that for 57 percent of tourists aged 18 to 35, coffee shops were a “very important reason” for choosing the Dutch capital as a destination. Under Halsema’s plans, Amsterdam’s 166 coffee shops—almost 30 percent of the total in the Netherlands—would be winnowed to 68, a number the survey cited as sufficient to cater to local demand.

“The idea is to get away from visitors that have only one focus: coming through the Red Light District, getting stoned or drunk and causing a nuisance,” says Geerte Udo, director of the city-marketing agency Amsterdam & Partners. “In the last five years we’ve seen the old city-center becoming a monoculture. Residents don’t feel it’s theirs anymore, which isn’t healthy for the visitor economy either.”

As part of a larger vision for what the city wants to accomplish by 2025, the agency instead invokes “valuable visitors.” 

“What we will do is focus on city trippers with a preference for culture,” says Udo. “That’s culture in the broadest sense of the word, both night and day. It’s museums, it’s stage performances. A huge percentage of people already come to Amsterdam to enjoy the architecture, the history, and the arts of the city, so I don’t think there’s going to be any vacuum.”

However, if visitor numbers do shrink a bit, that might not be a bad thing. Home to 850,000 people, Amsterdam drew 19 million visitors annually pre-coronavirus. As with other travel hotspots like Venice and Reykjavik, the city has an overtourism problem—one which it has met with stern resistance. In the past two years, tour buses have been diverted to the city outskirts where possible, cruise-ship visitors reduced by a new tax on arriving passengers, and guided tours of the Red Light District’s windows outlawed. Airbnb-style operations are also illegal in three central neighborhoods. Symbolically, in late 2018, the iconic “I Amsterdam” sign by the Rijksmuseum, a cause of selfie pile-ups, was removed; a year on, the Netherlands’ tourist board sidelined promoting the Dutch capital in favor of “destination management.” A ban on cannabis tourism could be the logical next step.

Joachim Helms, Chairman of the Association of Cannabis Retailers in Amsterdam and co-owner of Amsterdam’s Green House coffee shops, is skeptical it would work. “We see the kinds of tourists that visit coffee shops every day, and they’re people staying in five-star hotels, going to museums,” he says. “They’ll come even if there’s a ban.” The survey Halsema cited found that, despite the interest in legal weed, visitors’ number one draw was walking and biking in the city.

Amsterdam’s status as a weed destination also masks an unsustainable paradox: while coffee shops can legally sell cannabis for personal use—a policy of tolerance introduced in the 1980s—it’s illegal to grow marijuana, pushing crucial parts of the industry underground. The Dutch government is currently piloting a program to allow the legal cultivation and supply of marijuana by 10 select businesses, in what will be a European first. Yet some say that the move to ban weed for visitors in the country’s capital is a step backward. 

“Weed is becoming legal across the world and as a result, it’s also normalized,” says Helms. “In Amsterdam, people are still going to want to smoke cannabis and they’ll have to go to an illegal street dealer. Reducing supply won’t reduce demand.”

While Cody Reid-Dodick, the American co-owner of the city’s (marijuana-free) coffee shop Good Beans, is used to locals balking at the Vegas-ification of central Amsterdam, he feels the issue obscures tourism’s contribution to the economy: roughly $91.5 billion a year. “As the owner of a specialty coffee place, what makes me most nervous is where we just focus on overtourism and forget that Amsterdam should be a destination,” he says. “I worry that there’s a slippery slope to being anti-tourist, anti-outsider.” Tourism doesn’t just bring in money, he adds, but also helps spur the “good” kind of tourism that benefits locals too, pointing to how Copenhagen’s recent status as a top tourist destination has only bolstered its craft-oriented food and drink scenes.

The jury is out on whether the petition will pass when it goes before the city council on Thursday, January 28—previous drives in 2011, 2012, and as recently as December 2020 failed because of the fear of a return to street dealing. But this is the first time a city mayor has fully embraced the move, while admitting there would need to be a transition period for coffee shops, and for more research on effectively reducing the street trade, with any ban unlikely to go into effect until 2022.

Udo thinks momentum is on Halsema’s side, pointing to radical COVID-era urban initiatives, like Paris’s plans to make the Champs-Élysées greener than ever. “The time is more right now than 10 years ago,” she says. “The pandemic has created a vacuum giving the industry space to reconsider what a sustainable, ecological visitor economy means long-term.”

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