Drug law in the Netherlands has been a source of controversy for decades. While it’s true that the use of soft drugs is tolerated throughout the country and will most assuredly go unpunished, the encompassing socio-political climate is much more ambiguous. Before you give your order in one of the city’s legendary “coffee shops,” take the time to familiarize yourself with the dos and don’ts of drugs in Amsterdam.
Dutch law takes a hands-off approach to decisions that affect an individual’s health, placing excessive soda consumption into the same overarching category as controlled suicide or, yes, the use of recreational drugs. The operational word, however, is “use:” anyone on Dutch soil is allowed to puff a joint, but when it comes to selling or producing the THC-laden cannabis plant, legality becomes as hazy as the back room of a
De Wallen coffee shop. While these ubiquitous distribution centers are technically illegal, a separate code of non-enforcement trumps the drug laws. Non-enforcement is a common practice around the world, and is a code that dictates which offenses merit the expenditure of public resources and which do not—in the Netherlands, distribution and production of soft drugs are deemed unworthy of court time and prison space, and so they are simply tolerated.
Non-enforcement is so pervasive that you’ll find hundreds of licensed “coffee shops” throughout Amsterdam that purvey marijuana by the gram, by the joint, or cooked into buttery “edibles” ranging from hash brownies to kush carrot cakes. Some, but not all, also sell coffee. Coffee shops are often vibrant and atmospheric places, and if you like what they’re selling they can be great places to meet and mingle with both locals and fellow visitors. Other stores, called “smart shops,” proffer a range of non-enforced drugs, including some potent hallucinogens, alongside vitamins and herbs like ginkgo biloba. Examples of smart shops and coffee shops are well into the hundreds, and thickly line the streets of
De Wallen and the surrounding areas of Amsterdam’s Old Town.
“Drug tourism” is a two-sided coin, bringing millions of Euros into the Dutch economy each year, but annoying locals and sometimes resulting in accidents stemming from overuse or misuse by an inexperienced visitor. Recent legislation has moved to force coffee shops to sell soft drugs only to Dutch customers, and the policy is already in effect in several border towns. Amsterdam, however, decided not to honor the new law, which is also being contested in EU courts on the basis that it unfairly discriminates between EU citizens.
When you visit Amsterdam, it’s certainly tolerated and even encouraged to take part in the coffee-shop experience. After all, there’s no other place in the world that devotes so much of its cultural infrastructure to a psychoactive plant that’s outlawed in most countries. But be sure to poke your head out of the cloud enough to look around and appreciate the innumerable amenities offered by this top destination. Drug tourism might seem exciting, but it pales in comparison to Amsterdam’s world-class museums, eclectic cuisine and one-of-a-kind city planning.
Coffeeshops in Amsterdam