THE BLOG
05/09/2011 12:34 BST | Updated 01/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Smoke 'Em if You've Got 'Em: Why the Netherlands is Rethinking its Marijuana Policies

Abraxus is a three-story "coffeeshop" located in Amsterdam's De Wallen red light district.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the mood inside is mellow. A college-aged American backpacker is sitting in a corner, quietly puffing as he reads a graphic novel. A few feet away, a British guy in a leather jacket chats with his girlfriend. Downstairs, a bored employee is flipping through a case of CDs.

This low-key scene might leave an outsider wondering why the Dutch government passed a strict series of laws in May of 2011 that will dramatically change the way establishments like Abraxus are operated. Set to go into effect in several southern provinces by the end of the year and the rest of the Netherlands in 2012, the new rules are a major buzz kill for tourists, coffeeshop operators and locals alike. Soon, only Dutch citizens will be allowed to enter establishments that sell cannabis and they'll be required to sign-up for one year memberships. Each shop will have a cap of 1,500 members.

Needless to say, many are sounding alarm bells. Local campaigners, business owners, the Dutch press and even Amsterdam mayor Eberhard van der Laan are fretting over how dramatically this will impact the local economy, especially during a time when the tourism bubble could pop at any second due to worldwide financial woes. There's also fears that the tourist ban will lead to an uptick in illegal sales and crime.

How did this happen in a country that prides itself on being one of the most tolerant locales on the planet?

Flash-forward a few hours to another corner of De Wallen and you'll discover a different scene than the one at Abraxus. A group of tourists parades through the streets loudly singing Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," stepping over food wrappers and puddles of vomit along the way. A disheveled young lady is sitting on the pavement waving her arms madly at her boyfriend. There's no telling what she's ingested. A group of exhausted-looking police close in as she begins howling.

On this busy summer night, Amsterdam's central core has becomes a pseudo-Pleasure Island and many of those clogging its sidewalks are behaving like jackasses. It should come as no surprise that the district contains a bar called Pinocchio's. The Grasshopper, a popular coffeeshop among tourists, stands a hundred yards or so away from the city's main hub, Central Station. It's mascot? Jiminy Cricket.

According to the Dutch Tourism Council, eleven million tourists flocked to the Netherlands in 2010, matching a record set in 2007, many of them no doubt in search of wares that aren't legal in their place of origin. It can be tough to keep in mind that people actually live in De Wallen and that their darkened apartments are just a story or two above the throngs of raucous tourists below. Surely, they knew what they signed up for when they decided to move into an area like this. Regardless, many of them are not above complaining about the thousands of visitors who flock to their neighborhood every year.

Furthermore, many locals never entirely approved of the country's revised drug statutes and public opinion against these lax policies began to increase in the 1990s. Pressure from neighboring countries hasn't aided marijuana-advocates either. "Over the years, Dutch policy has prompted serious grousing from neighbors," CBS News reporter Brian Montopoli wrote in July of 2009. "In the 1990s, French president Jacques Chirac suggested the country's position was weakening Europe-wide efforts to combat drug use. One of his allies in the legislature went so far as to dub Holland a 'narco-state.'"

Worse yet, the Dutch government has little financial incentive to keep pot easily available.

Under the outlines adopted in 1976, the Netherlands can only tax marijuana indirectly via the incomes of coffeeshop operators and employees, further presenting lawmakers with a slanted cost-benefit scenario. Ultimately, the government doesn't derive much in the way of revenue from marijuana. Keeping De Wallen's throngs of pot-craving tourists in line doesn't come cheap.

In recent years, towns along the borders of the Netherlands have become a focal point in this debate, further fueling the fire of marijuana opponents. Many citizens living on the country's eastern border complain of rowdy German tourists flocking to their communities and causing disturbances ranging from noise complaints to low-level crime and acts of violence. One of the loudest critics, Gerd Leers, the former mayor of Maastricht, repeatedly rallied against the nation's lax drug policies in the mid-2000s. He even recorded, "Dope Man," an anti-marijuana song with De Heideroosjes, a Dutch punk rock band.

An increasingly conservative national government in the 2000s encouraged local councils to strictly enforce regulations, leading to further coffeeshop closures and an overall decline in their numbers across the country. Regulations imposed during the past decade have banned the sale of psychedelic mushrooms and have called for the closure of shops within 250 meters of schools. One of the latest anti-pot tactics employed by Dutch officials involves, believe it or not, "Scratch and Sniff" stickers. About 30,000 Dutch households received marijuana-scented scratch cards in November of 2010 as part of an effort to uncover illegal urban cannabis plantations.

Another thing to consider: marijuana isn't as popular among the locals as you might think.

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 22.6% of Netherlands residents between ages 15 and 64 reported having used cannabis in their lifetime. By comparison, in France, where the drug remains illegal, the percentage in that age group who reported using the drug was six points higher: 28.6% Meanwhile, among Italians, it sits at at any even higher 29.3%. In the United Kingdom, where the sample included 16 through 59 year-olds, the percentage who said they had used cannabis crossed the 30% mark.

With the tide of public opinion turning against weed and considering these factors, this latest set of measures may be the first step towards an outright ban on marijuana in the Netherlands.