Amsterdam's coffee shops would no longer be a sanctioned tourist attraction if a new plan goes into effect. Paul O'Driscoll/Bloomberg

Proposals to ban cannabis for tourists and relocate the red-light district would dramatically reshape the city’s anything-goes image.

Could a huge “erotic center” be the future for Amsterdam’s sex industry? Amsterdam City Hall suggested this proposal in a recent letter to the city’s council. But it’s not quite what it sounds like. Rather than double down on the city’s reputation for its open display of sex workers, the proposal would push sex workers in the red-light district out to the suburbs, where they would work in a purpose-built facility with indoor window booths, strip clubs, and a few other amenities like restaurants and bars.

The idea could be part of a radical clean-up for the Dutch capital’s city center, one that would actively retool the city’s anything-goes image in favor of something altogether more orderly.

Earlier this month, Amsterdam’s Mayor Femke Halsema floated another proposal in a similar vein — a ban on foreign visitors buying cannabis from Amsterdam’s 170 “coffee shops” that likewise cluster in the city’s heart. Part of a general inquiry commissioned by the mayor on creating a more manageable city center, the proposal will be voted on by the city council in March, to likely approval, given Halsema’s secure position at the head of a center-left coalition.

These proposals would be a dramatic shift for central Amsterdam, which has been a marketplace for cannabis for decades, and for sex workers, centuries. But already, these activities have been on the decline for several years.

With the advent of the internet, sex workers have been moving away from the red-light area, which saw about 40% of its windows closed a decade ago. Amsterdam’s coffee shops have also fallen sharply in number, partly due to a law banning them near schools. The current 170 coffee shops in Amsterdam are less than half the 350 establishments the city possessed in the 1990s. So why is there now a desire for more restriction?

According to the mayor, the sex-worker proposal is a compromise to improve working conditions without endangering the workers. “Sex work is a normal profession [and] it is not our intention to expel it from the city,” she wrote on Amsterdam City Hall’s website. Pressure-cooker conditions downtown have nonetheless made working there inconvenient and demeaning. “The situation now,” she said when announcing an inquiry last year, “is that predominantly foreign women, whom we don’t know how they ended up here, are being laughed at and photographed.”

But there are also wider seismic shifts happening in the Dutch capital’s tourist scene. The huge growth in the number of tourists visiting Amsterdam has made any kind of perceived antisocial behavior seem far more intolerable. In 2018 alone, this city of less than a million residents saw 17 million visitors. Amsterdam’s dense narrow streets and canals are struggling to cope with the overload, while apartments that would otherwise be in the long-term rental market are shifted to short-stay units. Many Amsterdammers are reasoning that if the city is to buckle under the weight of its tourists, they’d prefer well-heeled visitors who make less mess and spend more money.

Weed tourists and red-light district habitués don’t stereotypically fit into that category. Indeed, the figure of the messy, drunken tourist — a bogeyman and a real phenomenon at the same time — has become the target of special resentment for supposedly treating Amsterdam’s narrow streets as an unusually picturesque kind of vomitorium. There’s an overlap here with visitors to the red-light district, a place which has developed a newly negative reputation not just for its trade-in-chief, but as a place where tourists come to gawk rather than buy. Indeed, 45% of Amsterdam residents say that they now rarely or never visit De Wallen, the central area where sex workers’ windows and many coffee shops are located.

Part of the pressure for reform is thus tourism-connected — a concerted official attempt to deter what the Dutch call “monkey gazing,” or treating sex workers like an unpaid form of street theater. At the same time, workers are being squeezed for high rents for their window booths. Meanwhile, the public scrutiny the district gets has not been enough to entirely eradicate the trafficking of sex workers that persists across Europe.

But there’s a deeper potential explanation for the shift. Across the world, both official and public acceptance of seedy city centers has dropped through the floor. Back when the Dutch coffee-shop scene was in its 1990s heyday, many now-sparkling city centers in Europe and North America were far more rundown than Amsterdam’s. London’s Kings Cross area still looked like a war zone and the primary purpose of New York’s Times Square seemed to be to make visiting Midwesterners shudder. With the return of wealthy residents to city cores, however, real estate values have gone through the roof, and many once-louche urban districts have re-emerged as sparkling retail centers for the affluent. Inner Amsterdam is already a pretty tidy, well-cared-for place no matter what, but the idea of allowing the seamier side of commerce free rein here seems like a hangover from another time.

This push for change hasn’t come as a surprise, as the city has been pondering solutions for years. Last year, City Hall launched an inquiry into reforming the red-light district, which considered options such as dispersing sex workers before the city advocated the erotic center concept. Beyond Amsterdam’s city limits, the Netherlands also already has a law that makes it possible to ban cannabis sales in coffee shops to non-Dutch residents.

Since 2013, municipalities have been able to invoke a rule requiring proof of local address to buy cannabis at a dispensary, a measure especially common now in border towns that previously attracted weed tourists from neighboring countries. In addition, 10 Dutch cities are already trying out a “weed test” system that allows municipalities to freeze out cannabis producers with links to organized crime. They hope to do this by restricting coffee-shop cannabis sales only to growers who have been approved and had their product tested by the city.

The proposals to expel the sex trade and foreign weed tourists from inner Amsterdam could have significant impacts, for better and for worse. The city believes the erotic center could give sex workers greater protection and anonymity, deterring window shoppers who come to stare and attracting more bona fide customers to a relatively safe, monitored environment. It would also somewhat mirror a policy that has already been successful: the city’s management of noise-related clashes by granting 24-hour licenses to nightclubs outside of the city center.

If the center fails to attract customers, however, sex workers might well drift away from it and return to more frequented parts of the city, in conditions that would likely have become more dangerous because the window booths no longer exist. That’s what happened at a specially constructed drive-in sex facility in Zurich, Switzerland, where sex workers found themselves customer-less and thus had no option but to return to street-walking.

Likewise, barring non-domestic customers from coffee shops could go both ways. The city’s own research suggests that banning foreign visitors from buying would deter 40% of customers from using cannabis in Amsterdam — a notable drop. At the same time, visitors who persisted could then be supplied by street dealing, a trade whose effect could be far more socially obnoxious than the relatively well-regulated dispensaries. It would also leave the city open to accusations of unfairness, local cannabis advocates have pointed out, by cracking down on cannabis sales when a more lethal, antisocial drug is being peddled flagrantly and unchecked across the city — alcohol.

While the city is looking to zoning to fix some weed traffic it considers a public nuisance, there’s another policy avenue it could explore. Thanks to a Dutch legal quirk, while selling and consuming cannabis is legal, growing and processing it is not, and can lead to large fines. With 20% of national growers discovered by police annually, the law makes cannabis production risky enough that it’s often criminally associated growers who are prepared to take the risk. Last year the chair of a Dutch police union said that the drug trade was so out of hand in the country that the Netherlands had “the characteristics of a narco-state,” in which illegal producers also involved in guns, hard drugs and human trafficking controlled large chunks of the market. The Netherlands is already experimenting with ways to fully decriminalize weed production and thus remove large scale gangs from the chain.

Meanwhile from some angles, Dutch officialdom seems determined to off-load the blame for over-tourism onto visitors, when it should in fact lie at their own door. As Citylab reported last year, the Amsterdam region is expanding airport capacity, increasing its hotel room numbers and building a new cruise terminal — hardly measures designed to slow tourism’s growth.

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