The Netherlands' Awkward Intersection of Drugs, Tourism, and Local Culture
Weed smoking is part of the local culture in the Netherlands. It's also big tourism business. So there's a bit of a conflict facing the Dutch as they head to the polls next week when one of the major issues overshadowing the election centers on whether to limit the country's plentiful weed-and-coffee-shops only to locals. It's being framed as a question of preventing cross-border drug smuggling, but for the vast majority of people concerned, it's really a much broader question of whether a country's cultural pastime and tourist attraction should be both.
For the past few years, a government plan has been hatching to ban the sales of marijuana and other "soft drugs" to foreign tourists. A court ruling in April paved the way for that ban to move ahead, putting a new system in place that would require locals to obtain a "weed pass" that essentially turns the coffee shops into clubs. It's already rolled out in southern sections of the country, and could soon move on to the rest of the Netherlands, including tourist hotspot Amsterdam. Opponents of the ban are calling on voters to support politicians and parties in the September 12 election that would overturn the ban. Unless they're successful, there could be a lot less people visiting the country to enjoy a smoke.
According to The Independent, the southern city of Maastricht – now under the weed pass system – used to see more than 2 million drug tourists a year, most likely due to its location nestled near the borders of Germany and Belgium. Another 2 million people solely from England visit Amsterdam each year. It's not clear how many of them are there for the marijuana, but some estimates are in the hundreds of thousands.
Smoking a joint is obviously not the only reason to travel to the Netherlands, but it certainly is one reason. For more than 30 years, the Netherlands has embraced this reality, and a unique brand of tourism has developed around that local culture. While some cities and countries work hard to create reasons for foreign tourists to come for a visit, the Netherlands has a more natural draw.
Imagine if Disneyland were to impose a tax on anyone visiting the theme park. Visitors from out of town would largely bear this brunt, while the rest of Anaheim and Southern California would likely move along as usual. Taxing visitors to Southern California's beaches, though, would hurt both visitors and the significant beach culture of greater L.A.
For the Netherlands, the fact that all this centers around what most of the world considers illegal drugs makes things very complicated. But it seems that increasing the regulation of coffee shops has dual negative impacts: putting a leash on the local culture and stopping tourists from appreciating and celebrating that culture.
Top image: A customer buys a bag of marijuana at a coffee shop in the Netherlands. Credit: Jerry Lampen / Reuters