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Entertainment History / Activism

Once upon a time in Netherlands… The first days of decriminalization

by Yanna Jo

In 1976, the Government of Holland, in a uniquely pioneering, for the time, move, officially approved the policy that allows the sale, possession and consumption of cannabis to the general public.

Cannabis remains, until today, illegal, but it is tolerable for customers to buy up to five grams a day. 105 out of the 443 municipalities have at least one coffee shop.

A consequence of the change in legislation, was the successful separation of the cannabis market from that of “hard” drugs, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, etc. This change has de-demonized and de-marginalized cannabis users, while managing to minimize the “black market”.

Thus a new market has bloomed, which marked the beginning of a new era and became a symbol, making the country an attractive tourist destination, that of coffee-shops.

Mellow Yellow is widely recognized as the first coffee shop in Amsterdam and it paved the way for the rest. In those days, they didn’t call it a coffee shop, but a tea-house. This prototypical establishment was founded in 1972, before decriminalization but at a time when cannabis was becoming more tolerated in the Netherlands. However, selling it was still illegal, which meant that its owners had to cover up their transactions and hide the company’s main source of income. To avoid suspicion, the dealers in the store behaved like regular customers, seated in the bar and secretly sold packaged cannabis to other seemingly unsuspected regulars. Although police invaded Mellow Yellow several times, they have never found clear evidence of criminal activity, so that they could shut down the coffee shop or stop the sale that was taking place in its premises.

Eventually, other similar ventures began to be implemented in Amsterdam, including one of the city’s most famous, the notorious The Bulldog, which was founded in 1975 by Henk de Vries in a former “house” in the Red Lights district. Henk focused on another part of the market. He didn’t just aim at the old-fashioned hippie who knew weed for dozens of years, but the passing man on the street. For this reason, he still calls his shop the first, essentially, real coffee shop.

In the late 1975 there were about ten coffee-shops and at the end of the decade of 1970, there were dozens. In 1976, the Dutch government passed the law on decriminalization, but although cannabis was decriminalized, that does not mean it became legal. In fact, cannabis sale remained a criminal offence, but traders could avoid prosecution if they followed certain regulations.

Hundreds of coffee shops were founded in Amsterdam and elsewhere in the Netherlands after decriminalization. In order to continue to operate, however, they had to comply with certain regulations at national level and also some local restrictions. 

In 1996, the municipality of Terneuzen and the only tolerant city in the southwestern province of Zeeland, licensed two coffee shops, Miami and Checkpoint (which was already operating illegally). Checkpoint made use of forced removal measures to expand significantly, creating a Mega coffee shop, which, on average, served 2,900 customers (on peak days up to 5000). The coffee shop had its own parking, café and restaurant, almost 100 employees and an annual turnover of 26 millions. Half of the visitors came from France and 40% from Belgium. On June 1, 2007, the police invaded the coffee shop, where they found 4.5 kg of cannabis. In a neighboring warehouse another 41 kg were found, a quantity much larger than the maximum allowed stock of 500 grams. On May 20, 2008, the police invaded the store again. This time 72 kg of cannabis were seized and the coffee shop was closed.

While some of the restrictions were and are quite clear (e.g. that alcohol is prohibited in coffee shops), others are not so simple. For example, although coffee shops are allowed to buy and sell cannabis, its large-scale cultivation in Holland is illegal. That means that coffee shops have to buy their stocks from illegal sources, but are then allowed to sell it legally (but on a smaller scale) to customers.

Some of the oldest and most famous coffee shops that exist today are Barney’s, Dampkring, Bluebird, Grey Area, Abraxas, Baba, Siberie, Smokey, etc.

The Netherlands, due to its historic decision to decriminalize cannabis, became, in the years that followed and until this day, a symbol of freedom of cannabis, boldness and pioneering decision and is the most shining example of the respect for personal freedom and expression but also of victory towards the prejudices and demonization of a plant created to offer everything humanity needs: Healing and Pleasure.

The Green Greeks Magazine

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