Dutch coffeeshops under attack

In May, Dutch voters gave the top spot in Holland’s multi-party elections to the conservative Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) political party.
CDA leader Jan Peter Balkenende, a 46-year-old who is likely to become the country’s prime minister, told journalists during victory interviews that the CDA intended to end Holland’s “tolerance” of marijuana coffee shops.

Before Balkenende can implement changes in Holland’s marijuana policies, the CDA must form a coalition government with other political parties that received significant vote totals in May, according to Balkenende spokesperson Hans Van der Vlies, who says that the formation process could take several months.

Likely governing partners include the VVD, a moderately conservative party that participated in the so-called “Purple” government of the last eight years- a time when the government tightened coffee shop regulations and increased cannabis seed production penalties.

The CDA must also negotiate power-sharing with List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), a party formed in February after its leader, Pim Fortuyn, was removed from the leadership of the Livable Netherlands party because Fortuyn called for drastic changes in how Holland welcomed and accommodated immigrants.

Fortuyn was a handsome, charismatic, openly gay man who supported tolerance of cannabis shops. He was increasingly viewed as a nationally viable candidate, but he was assassinated on May 6. LPF policies regarding cannabis are less certain now that Fortuyn is gone.

Fortuyn’s murder, combined with anti-Muslim sentiment caused by 9-11 and public discontent with eight years of the incumbent Labour government, caused many Dutch voters to support social conservatism during the May balloting.

Holland’s “turn to the right” echoes political trends in other European countries ? France, Portugal, Italy, and Denmark among them ? that have recently seen “left” politicians removed from power in favor of more conservative politicians who emphasize law and order, business interests, and stricter social policies.

As with the CDA, many of these parties possess ideologies derived from “Christian” religious tradition, with Catholicism having an especially wide-ranging influence over the conservatives? views of what an “ideal society” should look like.

Holland even has its own Christian fundamentalist political parties: the Christian Union and the Political Reformed Party together got nearly 5% of the vote in May’s elections.

Anti-cannabis coalition?

In the months following the elections, Cannabis Culture interviewed CDA officials about the Party’s views on marijuana.

Balkenende spokesperson Hans Van der Vlies told us that the CDA had a “long term goal of shutting down all the marijuana coffee shops.”

“We don’t say that we will shut them down by a certain year or date,” Van der Vlies explained. “We are realistic. We know that can’t be all done at once. But it is a goal.”

CDA spokesperson Jack DeVries and International Secretary Ellen Van Mooersel agreed that the CDA wants to end to the country’s world-famous coffee shop industry, but they emphasized that the closure process would take several years, and would be influenced by public debate about Dutch soft drugs policy.

“More and more local governments are shutting shops down,” De Vries said. “The number of shops overall is shrinking fast. We will be negotiating coffee shop policy with the other parties likely to join us in the governing coalition. Their ideas will be a part of any policy we have, but our eventual goal is of course to have no more coffee shops.”

Van Mooersel and other CDA officials claim that marijuana shops harm peoples? physical and psychological health, lead to increased use of harder drugs, and create a climate of permissiveness and criminality that damages society.

“Jan Peter says that young people should not be able to have easy contact with soft drugs,” she explained. “He wants stricter rules on shops, so that they don’t help people under 18 get access to drugs or become a menace to a neighborhood. He proposes removing shops from family neighborhoods and not letting them be near schools. He wants the shops better regulated with stricter rules.”

According to Jack DeVries, the CDA is responding to voter concerns about law enforcement and crime.

“There is a tradition in Holland that we have laws but we look the other way when they are broken,” he explained. “The coffee shop system is an example of this. The international laws and some members of the European Union do not want our country to tolerate marijuana shops. We have rules for the shops, but our police do not have the resources to enforce those rules. We also look the other way in regards to how the shops get their products. We think voters supported us because we say, ‘If there are laws, they should be enforced.'”

Cause for concern

Much of the CDA’s cannabis rhetoric resembles simplistic drug war ideology heard in the United States, but Holland’s 30 years of soft drugs tolerance has given it a unique opportunity to consider marijuana’s effects on individuals and society.

DeVries says he is proud that his country has a lower drug abuse rate than most other First World democracies, but he says that the CDA believes that the harms of current policy have begun to outweigh the benefits.

“Our young people have been affected most of all,” he says. “We have an increasing number of dropouts, especially among youngsters coming from other countries, and they are going to the coffee shops instead of going to school, or on their way home from school. They are being psychologically affected by this drug. All they do is smoke marijuana. We are seeing a ‘Lost Generation.’

“There are health problems caused by marijuana,” he continued, “and Dutch people are very good at growing things, so they are growing stronger and stronger marijuana, and also making or bringing in very strong hashish, so we can scarcely call this soft drugs anymore. Almost every time we sample the product in the laboratory we find that the percentage of THC has increased. Dutch marijuana is close to having the same effect as a hard drug.”

Van Mooersel says that degraded neighborhoods and street crime are increasingly associated with the marijuana trade. She and other CDA officials also cited concerns about “synthetic drugs” like Ecstasy.

“Jan Peter calls the Netherlands ‘the Colombia of Europe’ in regards to its manufacture of ecstasy,” DeVries commented. “The Netherlands acts like it is an island in Europe, but our production and sales of soft drugs have made us a magnet for people who want to use drugs.”

Dutch drug war?

CDA official Hans Van der Vlies noted that most political rhetoric about marijuana policies leading up the May elections came from the Green Party and the Labour Party.

“The soft drugs issue is not a hot issue in Dutch politics right now,” he said. “The Greens and Labour said it should be legalized. We said the opposite. We got the most votes. We intend to have an open, democratic discussion about this.”

In the short term, however, the CDA will push for increased restrictions on coffee shop locations and business practices, and more police “special teams” to enforce existing shop regulations while also targeting marijuana cultivation, seed production, the Ecstasy industry, and Internet sales of marijuana seeds.

The three-party coalition government in July submitted policy proposals to the country’s monarch, Queen Beatrix. The proposals include shutting down coffee shops that cater to tourists, especially in border zones, along with ending government-sponsored programs that provide pill purity tests for Ecstasy users.

“We will not have an American style drug war in Holland,” Van der Vlies said, dismissing concerns that the country will lose millions of dollars in foreign exchange if cannabis tourists no longer feel welcome in the Netherlands. “And we don’t think that ending the shops will mean people are thrown in with hard drugs or that illegal selling of marijuana will increase in an unregulated marketplace. Most of the shops are already breaking the rules anyway. If we restrict the shops, it will be harder for young people to get marijuana, which is our goal.”

The ultimate CDA solution to what it perceives as a “soft drugs problem” is demand reduction.

“Our job is to make sure that the public is educated about the dangers of soft drugs and the coffee shops so that they no longer want to smoke this stuff,” Van der Vlies said. “The demand for it will go down, and then the shops will go out of business.”

Dutch coffee shop guru Nol Van Schaik, who owns three potshops in Haarlem near Amsterdam, says the CDA does not have a popular mandate for its anti-pot stance.

“The Dutch people are happy with the coffee shop system, and it is being copied by other countries in Europe,” Van Schaik said. “The system has resulted in less mixing of hard drugs and soft drugs, and has decreased the influence of organized crime while generating billions of dollars every year for the agriculture, hospitality and tourism industries. Marijuana is in big demand; no matter what the CDA does, people will find a way to get it.”

? Christian Democratic Appeal: www.cda.nl
? Nol von Schaik: www.wwwshop.nl