Shortly after 5 pm on Sunday, the government of the Netherlands issued an urgent decree: To control the coronavirus outbreak, virtually all restaurants and bars were being ordered to shut their doors until April 6, effective less than an hour later, at 6 pm. Included in the ban were the famed "coffee shops," which sell more pot than pots of joe.
Within minutes of the announcement, lines stretched around the block at shops across the Netherlands as stoners sought to stock up on enough weed to get them through weeks of quarantine. "We were going to get groceries and saw a huge line in front of the coffee shop," said Guntars Upis, a student in Amsterdam. "We decided to get some too, before it closed."
Almost as soon as the lines popped up, another group hit the streets: Illegal dealers. While marijuana is tolerated in the Netherlands, it's never been fully legalised, and selling it outside of official channels is a crime. But that didn't stop suppliers from working the lines at the coffee shops, where they could be seen passing out cards with their phone numbers and promising prompt deliveries - at about three times the price in stores.
"Unfortunately, we couldn't help everybody as we needed to close within 30 minutes," said Bart Vollenberg, who owns two coffee shops. "Street dealers immediately jumped into the gap."
Then, just as quickly as they were closed, the coffee shops were back in business. After an emergency meeting Monday evening, under pressure from mayors concerned about a potential upsurge in street crime as the business shifted underground, the government said pot stores could reopen for carry out, as long as customers maintained a sufficient distance from one another. "It will be just like picking up a pizza," said Hubert Bruls, mayor of Nijmegen, a city of 170,000 near the German border.
Vollenberg, who's in a group chat with about 240 other coffee shop owners, said his stores are open, as are most of the other shops. The weed industry is a big tourist draw in the Netherlands as well as a significant business, with legal sales estimated by various studies at roughly 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) a year.
Shutting down "would have meant that 5,000 to 10,000 people who work in coffee shops suddenly would be sitting at home doing nothing," Vollenberg said. "But for now, we're a pick-up counter. It's pretty much business as usual."