Coffee Shop Crackdown

In the American imagination, the Netherlands is famous for its “coffee shops” and laissez faire approach to marijuana. But one thing I found out when I visited Amsterdam a few years ago is that the trend in recent years has been toward stricter rules on coffee shops (for example, banning the sale of alcoholic beverages in establishments that also serve marijuana) and a reduction in their number.

And now it seems that the new right-wing coalition government taking office is certain to crack down even further:

Certainly the outlook for coffee shops is bleak. Among the few policies that the three parties in the new coalition government agree on is the need to reduce their numbers. The governing agreement released last week laid out plans that will force them to become members-only clubs and shut down those shops located near schools.

The coalition is also advancing the idea of prohibiting the sale of cannabis to non-Dutch residents, which amounts to a death knell for many coffee shops.

There are various ins and outs to this, but as I understand it there are two main problems with the status quo. One is that under the old tolerance regime there’s still no way for a coffee shop to legally obtain the supply of marijuana you need to operate on the scale of a business. Consequently, de facto legalization hasn’t actually eliminated the black market and associated criminality. Secondarily, the main market for the coffee shops turns out to be drug tourists from abroad. That reduces the Dutch political constituency for keeping them open. And the two factors interact together to create a situation where there’s a strong case to be made that legal coffee shops (by bringing drug tourists from the UK and the US into shops that need to tap an illegal wholesale market to gain their supplies) increase the scale of organized crime in the Netherlands.


I think that if you’re looking for stable alternatives to prohibition you either need to more to a more robust form legalization than the Dutch had — complete with totally legitimate marijuana farmers — or else adopt the Mark Kleiman “grow your own” proposal in which growing pot, smoking pot, possessing pot, etc are all legal but commerce in marijuana would be illegal.