Netherlands bans pot for foreigners

Open cannabis culture yields to worry over crime

 Tourists smoked a joint at the Grey Area cafe in Amsterdam, where a ban on foreign tourists at cannabis cafes is scheduled to take effect next January.
Tourists smoked a joint at the Grey Area cafe in Amsterdam, where a ban on foreign tourists at cannabis cafes is scheduled to take effect next January.

AMSTERDAM - Hendrix (Jimi) gazes down with bloodshot eyes from a portrait on the wall. Jagger (Mick, “Gimme Shelter’’) groans on the sound system. And sitting joyous amid clouds of swirling smoke at the 420 Cannabis Cafe is Savage (Jason, of Morgantown, W.Va.), a tourist who arrived a few days ago on one of his frequent trips to the Netherlands. He does not come for the tulips.

Yet even as he eagerly anticipates his turn on a joint the size of Texas in his pal’s hand, this 38-year-old visitor is troubled. Word is spreading fast through the United Nations of Stoners: For foreign tourists, generations of whom were drawn to this city’s open cannabis culture, these could be the last days of Purple Haze (or Lemon Larry, White Widow, NY Diesel, Space Cake, and any of the other earthy-spicy morsels on this city’s extensive marijuana menus).

Enforcement of a new law banning all but Dutch residents from pot coffee shops has started in southern cities in the Netherlands, where drug-related organized crime became one of the main drivers of the new regulations. Roadside signs put up by authorities across the south now bluntly warn visitors, “New Rules, No Drugs,’’ with at least one cafe shut down by police for serving foreigners and several others closing voluntarily in protest of the tourist ban.


But for global bohemia, what truly matters is the second phase of the plan: On Jan. 1, the ban is scheduled to go into effect across the rest of the country, including for the 250 cannabis cafes of Amsterdam.

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“This is huge,’’ Savage moaned, head in hands. “I mean, how could they do this to us?’’

The cafes offer a selection of marijuana.

From the macro perspective, the move could deal a blow to global efforts to legalize marijuana, a movement that through legal medicinal sales has been making steady gains in the United States, where even televangelist Pat Robertson has come out in favor of treating cannabis like alcohol in the eyes of the law. Now, opponents could seize on the rolling back of tolerance by even the liberal Dutch as evidence that legalization might not work as well as advocates say it does.

But for weed lovers of the world, for whom Amsterdam became a sort of rite of passage and a liberation from the confines of home, the personal loss could be incalculable.

“The coffee shops became extensions of your living room, a place where you find a 65-year-old Brazilian lawyer talking to a 20-year-old American backpacker, both relaxed and open because they’re smoking’’ weed, said Jonathan Foster, 40, a Rhode Island musician who in 1995 opened Grey Area, the only American-owned cannabis cafe in Amsterdam.


In his cramped little space, Foster said he has helped the likes of Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, and Woody Harrelson get high. “Nationalities mix, people bond,’’ he said. “The idea that could go away is too much to imagine.’’

A judge in The Hague has ruled against a legal challenge to the ban, but cafe owners are appealing that decision. If their case fails, many owners say they will simply ignore the ban and hope Amsterdam city officials, who have publicly come out against it, will look the other way. They take stock in the fact that it took authorities 10 years before they truly began enforcing the official ban on alcohol and marijuana sales at the same establishments.

But with national authorities insisting on the ban, a cloud of another sort is suddenly hanging over Amsterdam.

Walk through the red light district, where women in fishnets display themselves in dimly lit windows, pass the bigger cafes such as the Grasshopper and Homegrown Fantasy, and soon you come to the Cafe 420, where you can always spot the first-timers. Fresh-faced young things bravely walk through the door. Bravery quickly fades. Is this really, like, legal? But eyes light up at the menu.

The new policy would see cannabis cafes become members-only clubs, with “pot passes’’ to enter issued only to registered Dutch citizens and resident foreigners. But the idea of registration clashes with the notion of liberation being peddled at cafes, and many owners and Dutch clients insist that they will simply refuse to comply.


Technically, buying pot and hash in the Netherlands has always been illegal, but since 1976 a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy had arisen over possession of less than five grams.

By the 1990s, pot “coffee shops’’ or “cannabis cafes’’ were issued “toleration licenses’’ effectively allowing them to sell small quantities of soft drugs as long as they did not also sell alcohol.