On a rainy afternoon in Amsterdam, I had the pleasure of passing a couple hours inside the cosy and friendly Cannabis College, a non-profit information centre that educates visitors (mostly foreigners rather than local people) on recreational and medicinal cannabis use.
The beauty of this place is that it is totally free, welcoming to all visitors, and focused on educating people (unlike the Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum next door, which is run by a private company, charges €9 for entry, and seems to be fleecing the tourists). The Cannabis College is a bit like a library, with shelves full of binders containing documentation on every topic from “Grow Your Own” to “Cannabis Cooking” to “War on Drugs.”
They very friendly and knowledgeable Yuri greeted me, showed me around, and took the time to explain to me a whole bunch of things I didn’t know about cannabis and coffeeshops in The Netherlands. While people tend to think of Amsterdam as a “free for all,” it turns out marijuana consumption is highly regulated by the Dutch government. Firstly, weed can only be sold in coffeeshops; a dealer can’t sell it on the street. Secondly, the coffeeshops have to be licensed (just like bars have a liquor license in the UK). There are only a very limited number of existing licenses, which are specific to a particular location and are expensive to acquire; no new licenses are being issued. Moreover, coffeeshops can only be owned by Dutch nationals.
Thirdly, while people are allowed to consume weed, and while coffeeshops are allowed to sell weed (and possess up to 500 grams of stock at any one time), ironically it is illegal in Holland to grow weed, transport or deliver weed, and supply weed to a coffeeshop. So this means the police could arrest a person who is in the act of delivering weed to a coffeeshop and send them to jail (and apparently this has happened). Of course, the coffeeshops have to get their supply from somewhere, and most pot is grown domestically (and illegally) in the south of the country. The only exception to this is some marijuana which is produced legally in Groningen for medicinal use. People who have a medical card for prescribed marijuana use can go to the pharmacy and get this official supply, whose production is controlled and cleaner.
There used to be over 600 coffeeshops in Amsterdam, but today there are only 223, and the numbers are declining. The rise of conservatism in the Dutch government has brought efforts to clean up the city’s Red Light district and reduce the number of coffeeshops. Police have become more stringent, patrolling coffeeshops and shutting them down for any infractions. In late 2008 the government announced a new rule that any coffeeshop within 250 metres of a school must close by the end of 2011. The city has also stopped renewing coffeeshop licenses.
What’s so ironic about all this is that most Dutch people don’t even smoke weed. The majority of my Dutch friends either don’t smoke or have never smoked, and they perceive coffeeshops as a place for tourists and foreigners. The percentage of Dutch people who smoke weed is lower than in neighbouring countries and half the rate of countries like Spain and Italy.
If you want to visit the Cannabis College, it’s at Oude Zijds Achterburgwal 124 in the Red Light district.