Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The Hague’s new ban on the public consumption is the latest signal of the country’s waning tolerance. It could also be a step toward a happier medium.
If you assume the Netherlands has an anything-goes attitude toward cannabis, think again.
This month, the city of the Hague—home to the parliament and royal family of this famously tolerant country—announced that, while it will still tolerate the possession of small amounts of cannabis, it will ban public consumption in its city center. The move is apparently in response to complaints about noise and smells. While it might seem tame compared to countries that ban smoking outright, it still marks a turnaround for a place that has an international reputation for permissive drug policies.
Indeed, the tide seems to be turning against general tolerance in the Netherlands, with increasing curbs being placed on cannabis trade and public consumption. So why is this tightening up occurring here at a time when other countries are moving toward relaxing their laws?
The truth is that the Netherlands has been trying to curb some aspects of the weed business for a while now. As things stand, cannabis possession is technically illegal, but for personal consumption, that law is ignored. Amsterdam (later followed by Rotterdam) banned coffee shops from setting up within 250 meters (820 feet) of secondary schools as far back as 2011. Meanwhile, the whole country came close to limiting weed sales back in 2012, when the government proposed a “Weed Pass” system that would limit cannabis sales to national residents, replacing a cannabis club membership system that had long been in place in the county’s three southernmost provinces. While a few border towns kept the system, the pilot was largely abandoned due to fears that it increased black-market street trading.
Now the Hague’s move is the most comprehensive ban the country has seen yet. What it implies is less a drug crackdown and more of a general shift away from tolerance of cannabis use in public. The ban is being introduced partly because people simply don’t like smelling weed when they’re, say, buying a ticket at the central station. This needn’t come as a surprise. The Netherlands—or at least Amsterdam—may have earned a stereotype among some Americans as a sort of daily re-enactment of the Woodstock Festival with added windmills. The country can nonetheless strike visitors as a rather buttoned-up place, one that places high value on social and environmental orderliness.
Consumption isn’t necessarily the target here—the Netherlands has long had comparatively low levels of cannabis use compared to other European countries, anyway. It’s more about combatting a sense of public untidiness and tacit official approval for weed use. Banning coffee shops around schools, for example, won’t necessarily deter young people from getting their hands on cannabis. What it does do is lessen their exposure to it, as does banning its use from central streets. Frustration at publicly active stoners is also partly influenced by the country’s ongoing anti-tourist backlash, which has seen clampdowns on anything from beer bikes to Airbnb. Coffee shops are especially popular with travelers who face tighter controls at home, though weed tourists are more likely to choose Amsterdam than an attractive but terminally unhip city like the Hague.
Laws that shield people from cannabis use without actually blocking its supply can hardly be said to infringe on people’s rights—or, to be fair, even their convenience. There are still some question marks over the ban, though. Can it be meaningfully policed across a large swathe of a major city, especially when officers have more pressing concerns? And are weed smokers genuinely more of a social menace than drunk people, who throng Dutch streets on weekends?
While the ban’s workability is still open to question, the broader movement could arguably be interpreted as a positive step toward making tolerance of cannabis use more functional. Haguers who hope their central streets will smell sweeter when outdoor cannabis smoking is banned may be in for a disappointment, though.