Dear Seattle, Careful You Don't End Up Like Us. Love, Amsterdam

Retail cannabis stores are getting ready to open in Washington state. But at the same time in the Netherlands, decades of permissive pot policies are being eroded. 

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Conor Christofferson

SEATTLE—Cannabis activists here are, at this very moment, eagerly awaiting the full implementation of Initiative 502, which in late 2012 legalized recreational marijuana in the state of Washington. By early summer, 21 retail marijuana stores will open inside this picturesque city, and entrepreneurs with dollars signs in their eyes are already hatching plans to strike it rich with weed. They see Seattle as a wide-open frontier, an Amsterdam on the Puget Sound.

Except in the real Amsterdam, decades of permissive policies toward marijuana use are gradually, and rather acutely, being eroded.

At its zenith in the 1990s, nearly 400 “coffee shops” of every possible stripe dotted Amsterdam’s streets. But thanks to conservative government leaders and an evolution in the Dutch mentality toward health, the number of shops that openly sell marijuana has been more than halved over the past 20 years.

Following a series of tough new laws, Amsterdam coffee shop owners now say they see a looming disaster. If Amsterdam's robust cannabis industry is on the verge of collapse, it will mean more than just lost jobs and shrinking tourist dollars. They say an Amsterdam without coffee shops would mean more organized crime, more violence, and more hard drugs.

Seattle's nascent legal marijuana industry has nowhere to go but up, but experts in the global city with arguably the most experience with pot—Amsterdam—say the ceiling will remain low if certain quirks and oversights in the law aren't addressed.

For all its flaws, the best model from which Seattle could borrow does indeed come from Amsterdam. But unless Dutch leaders take a few cues from their counterparts in Washington State, their own model may soon become extinct.

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Amsterdam is a city best seen by water. Safe from the hordes of bicyclists and drunk Brits on never-ending stag weekends, the city slows to a crawl when you step foot on a boat.

As his well-used motorboat glides through the maze of concentric canals on a cool March afternoon, Mark Jacobs looks out at the city he loves and sees a city in flux. He points to a storefront wedged between a pair of candy-colored canal houses that until recently played home to one of Amsterdam’s famous coffee shops, where locals and tourists would linger on outdoor benches, smoking joints and drinking tea. The building now sits vacant – a casualty in the decades-long bloodletting that Jacobs and others say is slowly killing off Amsterdam's cannabis culture.

Jacobs’ own coffee shop, Rookies, has so far survived the culling, but only by a hair.

A standard cannabis purchase at Rookies coffee shop in Amsterdam. (Conor Christofferson)

True believers say the Dutch coffee shop model is about much more than marijuana, and August de Loor is nothing if not a true believer. As director of Amsterdam’s Drugs Advisory Bureau, de Loor has spent decades pushing back against all manner of anti-coffee shop movements. He sees Amsterdam’s coffee shops as sacred institutions. To him, they are places of higher learning. They’re safe havens. And they are a crucial buffer, the thin line keeping hard drugs and violent crime at bay.

“In the coffee shop system, the smoke itself is not the thing,” he says. “When you’re only in it for the smoke or only in it for the drink, then you smoke too much or you drink too much.”

Despite his best efforts, de Loor is certain he’s fighting a losing battle. He’s convinced all of Amsterdam’s coffee shops will be gone in 10 years. If he’s right, it’s because there’s no legal framework to guard against the death-by-a-thousand-pinpricks strategy Dutch politicians are using to dismantle the system.

Amsterdam has long been the unquestioned pot capital of the world, but technically all drugs – even soft drugs – are illegal in the Netherlands. Coffee shops get away with selling small amounts of cannabis as part of a long-standing policy of tolerance. Since the 1970s, Dutch leaders have agreed to turn a blind eye to coffee shops as long as they meet certain requirements. The problem, as least according to coffee shop owners, is that those requirements are constantly changing and are often left to the whims of local politicians. In addition to more standard rules – no minors, no alcohol, no advertising – there are also nebulous rules, such as “do not cause a nuisance.” In the end, each municipality is charged with deciding if these rules are being followed.

In 2008, 44 Amsterdam coffee shop owners were told their businesses were located too close to schools and would be shut down. Rookies was originally on the chopping block, but after some legal wrangling and a new, more forgiving measurement, it was determined the shop was just far enough away to pass muster. If the school requirement was a wake-up call for coffee shops owners, the introduction of the weed pass was a blow to the gut.

Implemented in 2012, the wietpas, or weed pass, was designed to curb cannabis tourism by banning foreigners from coffee shops. Cities were allowed to opt out, and for Amsterdam – which stood to lose millions of tourist dollars – the decision was easy. But it also means that Amsterdam’s coffee shops are now one conservative city government away from being decimated. Jacobs estimates 80 percent of his customers are tourists, and he wouldn’t survive a month if he had to depend on locals to keep him afloat. 

An even bigger issue than the weed pass is the so-called backdoor problem. Because Dutch drug laws are so murky, there’s technically no legal way for coffee shop owners to buy the cannabis they sell at their shops. Growling large amounts of marijuana is very much illegal, as is importing the drug from foreign suppliers. This conundrum forever puts the coffee shops in jeopardy of being raided and shut down.

In this Oct. 31, 2011 file photo a woman pushes a stroller onto the sidewalk as a car approaches at coffeeshop Kandinsky in Amsterdam. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Many coffee shop owners, including Jacobs, want to legislate an end to the backdoor problem, but not everyone is on board with that plan. De Loor, for example, doesn’t want the government meddling with coffee shops at all, even if that means leaving them in their current legal grey area. It seems counterintuitive and goes against the pragmatism the Dutch are known for, but de Loor believes legislating the backdoor would create a compromise he’s not willing to accept. Any backdoor solution would require government-licensed growers, and that would mean an even greater crackdown on foreign imports. No more Moroccan or Lebanese hash. No more Afghan kush.

“It’s like if you wanted to organize the pubs and said only Dutch beer, Dutch wine – which we don’t have – and Dutch liquor are accepted in Dutch pubs,” he says. “Where can I buy my Jack Daniels? Where can I buy my Cognac from France? I have to buy the bullshit alternative of cognac produced in Holland?”

Besides, de Loor truly believes the government is the problem, and only a fool would put the future of Dutch cannabis policy in the hands of politicians.

“When I talk with (politicians), I say your agenda is focusing on the backdoor, but what I see is that the front door is closing down. And 80 percent of it is as a result of the policy of this government. So you’re asking the same government to organize the backdoor?” 

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If its ambiguity and vast legal grey areas are the Dutch model’s biggest liabilities, then stability is the state of Washington’s biggest strength. Very little is left to chance under I-502. Each marijuana grower, processor, and seller will be vetted, licensed, and watched over. Marijuana will be traceable, tested for quality, and come equipped with a lot number, a warning label, and the concentration of THC. Retailers will look more like pharmacies than drug dens and, most importantly, smoking pot inside the stores will be strictly verboten.

Prohibiting Amsterdam-style coffee shops wasn’t an oversight, but a pragmatic decision meant to allay the fears of some of Washington’s more conservative voters. After spending much time and money on public opinion research, I-502 organizers realized the idea – however unfounded – of a bunch of perpetually stoned kids lurking around neighborhood coffee shops was just too much for many Washingtonians to stomach.

Revelers at the Seattle Center celebrate the one-year anniversary of the day Washington's legal marijuana law took effect on Friday, Dec. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

“Culturally, there’s still a lot of fear and stigma attached to it. People want it to look really locked down and boring. The stores are very bland and beige,” says Alison Holcomb, the ACLU lawyer who wrote I-502.

Initiative supporters decided winning with a flawed plan was better than no plan at all, but that doesn’t mean Holcomb and others don’t see the blind spot of legalizing marijuana without giving people a legal place to smoke it.

“Ultimately, I think (the Dutch model) is preferable,” Holcomb says. “The advantage of the Amsterdam coffee shop model is that it’s a public, social setting, so it gives people the opportunity to learn to use cannabis in a responsible way, so they’re not getting stoned out of their mind and looking ridiculous while sitting in a place where everyone’s staring at them.”

The lack of public venues to smoke legally left a void that many people, such as Mike Momany, are now are lining up to fill. Momany is a self-described hippie and serial entrepreneur whose local claim to fame thus far was his failed attempt at organizing a “course in applied homelessness,” which asked tourists to pony up $2,000 to live like a homeless person for three days. The 62-year-old has since turned his attention to marijuana. He founded the Washington State Cannabis Tourism Association and has hatched a dozen plans – some of them admittedly half-baked – to capitalize on Seattle’s newfound freedom.

His initial idea for a cannabis cruise ship fell through when he realized the Coast Guard – a federal agency that doesn’t recognize legal marijuana – would have to be involved. His attempts at planning private “vaporizer parties” were nixed when he couldn’t find venues willing to take his money. But those were just the first ideas that popped into his head; there are many more where they came from. His current plans involve a pot-themed pedicab company called Cannicabs and an outdoor movie series showcasing stoner-friendly films. He’s also exploring ways to host temporary, weed-themed parties.

“You might want to have a cannabis poker game,” he says. “The guys get together to try bongs and try vaporizers. The girls can get together and sell cannabis beauty products.”

Momany’s far from the only person in Seattle who sees money to be made in the tertiary pot market. Kush Tourism is already offering customers what it calls a “behind the scenes tour of Seattle’s budding industry, Marijuana.” For $150, tourists can get a first-hand look at how glass pipes are made, get a hands-on lesson on how to trim marijuana, and learn the ins and outs of making edible marijuana snacks. For $1,420, White Mustache Urban Adventures will give clients a four-day, three-night “all-inclusive behind-the-scenes marijuana-infused vacation in Seattle. Food, transportation, edibles culinary class, and a Stache bag full of pipe, vaporizer, grinder, a swanky room in a swanky hotel, and of course plenty of food,” according to the company’s Facebook page.

Because they’re not growing or selling marijuana, these entrepreneurs don’t have to abide by I-502’s strict rules and will have little to no governmental oversight.

“That’s the beauty of what I’m doing with cannabis tourism,” Momany says. “You have all these rules in I-502 that don’t apply to me. This signage rule and where you can advertise? I can advertise anywhere I want, I’m not selling bud.”

There is certainly money to be made in all areas of legal marijuana, but those looking to strike it rich will soon learn that entering into a realm that has been ruled for decades by shady black-market dealers won’t be as easy or clean as they imagined, at least according to George Boyadjian, who operates the Washington Cannabis Institute. Boyadjian’s organization has held 12 standing-room only seminars in Washington since I-502 passed. He’s spoken with dozens of people looking to get a piece of the marijuana pie, and he says the hubris of many of the would-be pot industrialists he’s met is staggering.

“Just because it’s cannabis doesn’t mean it’s automatically going to be successful,” he says. “You’ve got to be business savvy. I’ve had people tell me, ‘Man, I’ve been selling weed since I was 12,’ but this isn’t selling weed. This is business. It’s apples and oranges.”

Holcomb thinks the first year of legal marijuana sales will be “bumpy,” but she’s confident that all the kinks will eventually be worked out and Seattle, with its beautiful scenery, top-notch food and thriving music scene, will become a major player in the world of international marijuana tourism.

“We’re kind of teed up to be the awesome cannabis capital,” she says. “If you’re going to go somewhere to relax and you happen to like cannabis, it seems like we offer a lot of things that cannabis enhances.”

Well, everything but a place to smoke it.

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