Sat, Mar 19, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Dutch police plan to cut `cannabusiness' in half

THE OBSERVER , Amsterdam

Amsterdam has long been the cannabis capital of the world. Smoky haunts offer "da herb" in one-gram bags or individual spliffs to everyone from stoned hippies to retired first-timers in all manner of coffee shops -- sleek lounge bars, gay clubs, cosy cafes and New Age retreats.

Though tourism authorities may be wary to admit that Mary Jane attracts more tourist attention than Anne Frank, the relaxed attitude to cannabis is one of Amsterdam's biggest draws. The police have long turned a blind eye and the coffeeshop owners get on with "cannabusiness" relatively unchallenged.

But all this could shortly change. Last week, the International Narcotics Control Board reported that the conservative coalition government plans to crack down on the coffee shop industry. By 2010, the city's culture of coffee and cannabis could even be extinct.

But not only are Amsterdam's coffee shops part of the city's streetlife, they're also a mainstay of its tourism industry. Not all the tourists are coming for the Rijksmuseum, art galleries and the canals. Hash coffee shops have been attracting fans of the "wonderful" weed since 1972, when the first outlets took root in the city.

Holland's current legal stance is that use of the drug is not illegal, but possession is against the law, though anyone caught with less than 30g is not prosecuted. Those over 18 can buy up to five grams in a coffee shop.

"Coffee shops are just an ordinary part of the city scene, and that ordinariness in a way has its charm," said Rodney Bolt, author of the Cadogan guide to Amsterdam and the Randstad. He also believes they serve a useful purpose.

"Coffee shops go a long way to demystifying dope, keeping kids away from people who might try and sell them harder stuff, and allowing police to keep an eye on things."

Although they avoid active promotion of cannabis tourism, a spokeswoman for the Netherlands tourism authority admits that,"A small part of the tourism to Amsterdam is people coming for the coffee shops."

Bolt adds: "Brits, and Americans especially, who are out for a little naughtiness see a smoke as part of an Amsterdam package along with drinking and an ogle through the red-light district."

But now, the government wants local authorities to reduce the number of coffee shops, especially near schools and areas bordering other countries. It has also voiced its concerns over links between the coffeeshop industry and the illicit drug trade, drug-related crime and health and social problems.

The number of cannabis stores in Holland has already dropped from 1,500 to 750 over the past five years. Nol van Shaik, one of Holland's leading coffee shop owners, said: "I had a meeting with the police in Amsterdam this week, and while they do not want to make using cannabis impossible in Holland, in Amsterdam they want to decrease the number of coffee shops from 250 to 120, and will do everything they can to do so. If owners are caught breaking the rules, such as selling to under 18s, or advertising cannabis, they will close them down." Closing down the shops could take away some of Amsterdam's unique charm.

"Tourists might look to other liberal places such as Copenhagen for that kind of holiday. They could become the new Amsterdam," said a spokeswoman from STA Travel.

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