A Sea-Change for Dutch Cannabis Policies?
It’s a trend that has been going on for some years now, but the latest manifestation of it is troubling the pot sellers.
Coffee shops legally selling cannabis have been a feature of Amsterdam’s streets for more than 30 years, both a magnet for younger tourists and a symbol of the Dutch brand of liberal exceptionalism.
But the fragrant haze found in the city’s 200 or so establishments could be dispersed under plans by the incoming government, which is looking to roll back the “tolerance policy” that has allowed such coffee shops to operate since 1976.
Coinciding with a tightening of laws around prostitution – another tolerated industry – the authorities’ new stance on cannabis is raising questions as to whether Dutch society is moving away from laisser-faire traditions, which have included some of the earliest gay-friendly policies in Europe and the provision of free contraception to teenage girls.
Certainly the outlook for coffee shops is bleak. Among the few policies that the three parties in the new coalition agree upon is the need to cut back on, if not entirely abolish, coffee shops. The governing agreement released last week laid out plans that will force them to become member-only clubs and shut down those located within 350 metres of schools.
This comes, as I said after years of gradual restrictions.
The new stance comes after years of gradual tightening of the rules governing cannabis sales and a 2007 ban on the selling of alcohol in the coffee shops. After proliferating in the 1980s and early 1990s, their number in the Netherlands has halved from a peak of 1,400 in 1995 to just over 700 today.
Is this a result of conservative knee-jerk reactions, pandering to their base? No, it appears that there’s a good reason for this.
For Paul Schnabel, director of the Social and Cultural Planning Office, a state advisory board, the move reflects a growing view that the tolerance policies have not achieved their aims of controlling the ills associated with drugs and prostitution, rather than a recasting of Dutch liberalism.
“There’s a strong tendency in Dutch society to control things by allowing them. It’s always been there, a pragmatic tradition, typical of a trading nation. We look for better alternatives to problems that we know exist anyway,” he explains.
But, he adds, “Dutch society is less willing to tolerate than before. Perhaps 30 years ago we were a more easy-going society.”
Heh, a "recasting of Dutch liberalism". That should read, "the Dutch becoming more conservative", I think. And liberals here in the US keep insisting that this policy, controlling things by allowing them, will work here, but the society that they hold up as a model, is moving away from that. Will we learn from them (I’m looking at you, California)?
And what are some of these ills?
The equation that led to the policy of tolerance has changed in the past decade, as large-scale crime around both coffee shops and the legal sex trade became more visible. In particular, the absence of legal means for coffee shops to acquire the cannabis they sell has highlighted its association with organised criminality.
But, but, I thought legalizing pot would get the criminals out of the equation? It hasn’t, and former allies are even turning against this.
But the open-minded instincts that helped foster the tolerance policies in the first place have also come to be questioned. And it is not just the far-right that is opposing coffee shops. The traditional parties of power on the centre-right, the Christian Democrats and the Liberal VVD party, have also moved against the tolerance policies they once promoted.
It’s not working there. Why do we think it’ll work there? Is American liberalism paying attention to the Dutch when the facts go against their policies? Appears not.
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