High time: inside Amsterdam's 'coffee shops'

As the Netherlands considers introducing a ban on tourists buying cannabis, Shaney Hudson takes a tour of Amsterdam's infamous "coffee shops".

On the Warmoestraat, it's easier to find a coffee shop selling cannabis than an actual cup of coffee. There's a hive of scum and villainy like this street in every major European city, a dirty, dodgy avenue lined with seedy hotels and run-down bars, tacky souvenir stands and neon lights, drunk tourists and overpriced kebab stores.

But the Warmoestraat has that little something extra mixing with the distinctive stench of decay and old booze: the unmistakable aroma of hashish.

Grazing the side of the Red Light District like an open sore, the Warmoestraat is the gateway to the area. For the average tourist, the Red Light District is more voyeurism than vice, a seedy sideshow glimpsed with wide eyes by people wanting to see, but not necessarily be seen. For others, it's a place to pick your poison: casual prostitution, a sex show, or soft drugs.

As lovely as the UNESCO listed canals and dozens of world-class museums are, there's no doubt a large percentage of international visitors flock to Amsterdam largely because of the free availability of marijuana.

The Cannabis College is the best gateway to the coffee shop world for the curious and uninitiated. A registered charity, the bilingual staff run a walk-in centre in the Red Light District offering advice and information. They'll happily explain the difference between weed and hash, indica and satvia, hydro and bio, haze and kush, without making you feel like an idiot.

Their brochure includes a list of tourist-friendly cafes in Amsterdam that have helpful staff and serve decent quality weed at a fair price.

Not surprisingly, not one is located near the Red light district.

Still, the iconic mega-cafes of that area pull in the first-timers like lambs to the slaughter.

Greenhouse, one of the better known spots, markets itself as a celebrity hotspot, with pictures of various A, B and C list stars displayed on their website. Better known is the iconic Bulldog, claiming to be the oldest coffee shop in the district. With its international reputation, the Bulldog brand is a mini-empire, with multiple locations, a hotel, bike rental and international franchises.

A souvenir nook in the corner does a roaring trade in shirts bearing the coffee shop's trademark dog logo. But why buy the T-shirt when you can check-in online?

Abraxas, located across Dam Square in a blink & you'll miss-it alley, has two wall-mounted computers with free internet access for patrons, so they can tell their friends exactly what they're up to via social media like Facebook, Four Square and Twitter.

The darling of many guidebooks, Abraxas is a decent starting point for anyone looking for something out of the RLD but still in the centre.

The weed and hash menu is mounted on a large TV screen at the front counter. There's a paper vending machine on the wall, and wooden benches and tables around the room.

A scruffy guy behind the counter scowls as he cards the awkward Spanish boys in the queue in front of me. Behind him, a girl squeezes fresh juices at the bar, where they also mix pre-wrapped bakery goods.

Coffee shops aren't supposed to serve booze (“we're budtenders, not bartenders” I overhear one say), so they often sell soft drinks or juice instead. Abraxas has its juice bar, some places do small bites or meals, and one coffee shop even has a reputation among expat Americans as the place to go for old school New York egg creams and fountain sodas.

The coffee shop habits of locals are wildly different to that of the average international visitor. Most locals are dismissive of the inner Amsterdam coffee shop scene for their faux-bohemian or hipster-cool interiors, tourist clientele, higher-priced and occasionally lower-quality product. Most locals purchase weed to take away and smoke at home or with friends. If they do hang out, it's in coffee shops way off the tourist radar.

Accessibility has made most Dutch indifferent to smoking weed, and ironically, the Netherlands has one of Europe's lowest rates of cannabis usage.

And yet while cannabis is accessible, it isn't legal; the availability of cannabis and licensing of coffee shops exists under a policy of 'tolerance', allowing the consumption and possession of up to 5g per person per day, allowing individuals to grow a small number of plants in private homes and licensing coffee shops under strict rules which limit them to keeping no more than 500g on the premises.

The aim of the policy was to take the soft drug trade off the streets, restrict access to those under 18, and limit exposure to harder drugs.

In this respect, it has worked. Yet it has also created the bigger problem of drug tourism - those flocking to Holland to do what they can't do elsewhere.

It's not the backpackers from America and Australia sitting in the Warmoestraat that are the problem, but the Flemish, French and Germans flocking to conservative border towns to buy cannabis that have created nuisance and trafficking issues.

A coalition government, with minority parties wielding disproportional power have targeted coffee shops for reform. While they won't eradicate the tolerance policy, they have proposed a restrictive reform called the Weed Pass, which aims to make coffee shops work on a membership system.

Limited to 1500 'members' per coffee shop, consumers would have to register to buy,and membership will be restricted to the Dutch. If it passes, there will be no more access to weed for tourists- even for the ones in Amsterdam toking their first spliff.

At present, the constitutional merits of a "Weed Pass" are still being mulled over by the Council of State. Opponents saying it's unconstitutional to ban foreigners from the cafes, arguing the words 'all persons present in the Netherlands shall be treated equally” will render the Weed Pass discriminatory.

Drug Tourism is big business for Amsterdam, with one in four visitors smoking during their visit, and the tourism industry stands to lose significant revenue if it is passed. For this reason, the Cannabis Retailers Association and the City of Amsterdam have come out fighting before the Weed Pass has even be discussed in parliament.

The CRA claims that: “Reports that such a pass will be applied in Amsterdam are…completely without foundation. The Mayor and Council of Amsterdam are radically opposed to such a scheme and it will not be implemented in the city.”

Meanwhile, the City of Amsterdam have labelled the proposal 'counterproductive' arguing “If tourists are denied access to coffee shops, illegal sales and drug dealing on the streets of Amsterdam will increase”.

It's a sentiment echoed by the locals I talk to.

“A weed pass in Holland? F--- that” one patron tells me, sitting on the first floor of Soft Temple, a tiny coffee shop near Dam Square. “Who's going to register to buy weed? People will just go to dealers”.

One thing seems certain: tolerated or not, cannabis will be always be available on the streets of Amsterdam.

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