In 2002, Cannabis Culture warned our readers that the famed Dutch cannabis coffeeshop system was in danger of being shut down by a right-wing, religious fundamentalist political party that calls itself the Christian Democrat Appeal (CDA).
The CDA won the majority of votes in a May 2002 general election, but failed to build a successful coalition government, forcing a new election in January 2003. The CDA and governing allies again became Holland’s official government in May 2003.
Shortly after the 2002 elections, we interviewed high-ranking CDA officials who spoke on behalf of CDA leader and Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. They said the “Harry Potterish” Balkenende intended to dismantle the entire pot coffeeshop system (CC#43, Worldwide weed war).
Since then, the CDA and its allies have moved aggressively, enforcing laws that outlaw coffeeshops near schools, and closing shops in border regions.
The federal government’s anti-marijuana stance has emboldened some local officials, especially the mayor of Amsterdam, who had long wanted to destroy the pot shop industry.
In the last eight months, Amsterdam cannabis coffeeshops have been routinely raided, with customers held hostage, searched, identity-checked, and in some cases arrested.
A coffeeshop that is part of the legendary “Bulldog” chain was shut down for a week, allegedly because police found an underage youth in the shop. Coffeeshop owners and their employees have also been subject to increased harassment, especially from tax officials.
Amsterdam’s coffeeshop industry is up in arms. Many shops have closed their Internet sites, turned off their neon signs, and become extra diligent about obeying coffeeshop regulations.
Now, a new threat looms on the horizon: the 2002 Tobacco Law that obligates businesses in the Netherlands to provide a “smoke-free” work environment.
The law’s supporters say they primarily intended to limit hazards of tobacco smoke inadvertently inhaled by employees, but they also say it’s OK with them if the law is applied to cannabis shops.
“Most Dutch people mix tobacco in with their marijuana cigarettes,” an anti-tobacco campaigner explained. “The coffeeshops are an unhealthy environment for workers and customers, but not necessarily because of the marijuana smoke.”
Early press reports prematurely proclaimed that the tobacco rules would hasten the imminent death of the coffeeshop system; marijuana industry spokespersons and representatives of the Dutch leisure industry reacted to the rules with anger and disbelief.
Wernard Bruining, who founded the first official Dutch marijuana shop 30 years ago, wrote a public letter stating that the Dutch government was treating marijuana smokers like the Nazis treated Jews in the second world war.
Arjan Roskam, head of a coalition of cannabis shop owners and owner of the popular Greenhouse coffeeshop chain, also protested publicly.
The new regulations were also criticized by the leisure industry, which includes restaurants, bars and caf?s. Industry reps said the regulations would cost the industry $1.5 billion per year in lost revenues, and that tens of thousands of jobs would be lost. The industry has been granted an exemption from the tobacco rules until January 2005, but the Dutch government doesn’t consider pot shops to be a legitimate part of the leisure industry, so pot shops don’t get the exemption.
Protest and tactics
Coffeeshop guru Nol van Schaik, who owns three cannabis shops in Haarlem, near Amsterdam, and who is the most politically active coffeeshop owner, said his shops were safe from government persecution, and that he believed the industry in general would not be shut down by tobacco-smoke workplace regulations or other government actions.
“There’s a lot of options shop owners are going to utilize,” van Schaik explained. “In my shops, everybody who works for us is a smoker, so they’re all going to sign paperwork stating they waive their right to a smoke-free environment. Some shops will start using vaporizers. We can put glass clean-air enclosures around our employees; we can make outside patios or other smoke and smoke-free areas.
“We could turn the coffeeshops into places where people buy cannabis and then go elsewhere to smoke it,” theorized van Schaik, “but we like our customers to stay and socialize. So we’re going to find ways around this law, so that people will have a place to buy weed and smoke it with other people.”
Van Schaik said that the larger message is that Holland’s right-wing government has become a threat to democracy and freedom.
“The CDA has its nose up Bush’s ass,” he said. “Bush scolded Holland and Canada in February, claiming these countries export drugs to the USA. The CDA supported the Iraq war and now they are following the prohibitionist line. The coffeeshop system was born during the street protests of the 1970’s ? if this government tries to take away our right to inhale marijuana, the Dutch people won’t put up with it. The coffeeshops will survive despite these CDA assholes.”