As several cities consider opening cannabis cafes, Amsterdam should serve as their blueprint.
As discussed in last year’s blog about Canadian Cannabis Tourism; there is tons of potential across the country. With that said, a lot would need to change before any of it can be realized. Canada made history by being one of the first countries to legalize cannabis for both medical and recreational use. Despite this, if you were to ask someone outside of Canada where the ideal cannabis vacation would be, most would answer Amsterdam. And they’d be right too. For decades, Amsterdam has been known worldwide for its lenient cannabis laws. Their coffeeshops (the name given to cannabis cafes) have hosted countless visitors from around the world.
The initial rules set forth made it seem unlikely that Canada could take the mantle. However, with recent news out of Canada, as well as increasing scrutiny over Amsterdam’s cannabis tourism, that may no longer be the case. Governments considering allowing cannabis cafes should take notes from Amsterdam. Both in what they did right and wrong.
To begin with, Amsterdam’s cannabis laws are somewhat confusing. If you’re basing your knowledge of Amsterdam’s drug laws on the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, it’s not exactly that simple. While many would have you believe otherwise, cannabis is not technically legal in the Netherlands. However, the country was incredibly progressive early on in their approach to how they deal with prohibition. They separated what they considered soft and hard drugs. Soft drugs meant weed, hash and mushrooms. Hard drugs were, well, hard drugs. You know the ones; heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines. The bad stuff basically.
The Netherlands government made the decision to ‘tolerate’ soft drugs. The call it gedoogbeleid which essentially means ‘tolerance policy’. They view the taking of soft drugs as a personal choice. One that an adult can make on their own. Similar to how we view alcohol and cigarettes. As a result, there is a culture of tolerance around cannabis. You will not face prosecution for simple possession or even growing a small number of plants. The Dutch point to the failed American alcohol prohibition as an argument against a complete ban. Most people can agree that more harm than good came from alcohol prohibition. It’s just that the Dutch were one of the few to actually apply that lesson.
Coffeeshops have been able to exist under these conditions for decades. For years, travelers would visit Amsterdam to sample the best hash and newest strains from around the world. My professors told me stories of visiting Amsterdam after college. When my brother turned 18, I took him to Amsterdam as well. The trip became almost a rite of passage for cannabis users who had the chance to visit. The coffeeshops are world-famous. And after visiting one, there is no question why. It’s truly a remarkable experience to enter a relaxing cafe filled with rich cannabis smoke. To be handed a menu where you can select your favourite hash and strains.
There is really nothing quite like it.
All Good Things Come To An End
While cannabis users from around the world hail Amsterdam as some kind of utopia, that is not always the case for the actual residents. And as much as I’d like to dismiss anything negative about the coffeeshops, I can understand some of the concerns. One might assume that the people of Amsterdam are thrilled to have an endless amount of tourists coming through their city every summer. And that may be the case for those involved in tourism or hospitality.
However, that only covers a small fraction of the population. Those who do not gain to benefit from cannabis tourism are only left to deal with everything that comes with it. The Netherlands is home to some of the most beautiful architecture, incredible art galleries and significant historical sites in the world. So it is understandable that people may become frustrated when a large portion of tourists come and choose to spend their entire time in the red-light district. They see the tourists that cannabis brings as partiers and responsible for traffic jams and drug dealing.
Controversial Weed Pass
As a result, there are many within the country calling to put an end to their cannabis haven reputation. They want to end the stream of cannabis tourists that come through the city every year, and in turn, perpetuate its image as a party city. Several cities now ban tourists from entering coffeeshops. These kinds of rules impact the business of these coffeeshops tremendously. This is because the vast majority of people that go to the shops are tourists. Many locals prefer to avoid coffeeshops. If they do consume cannabis, they often do so in the privacy of their homes. This means that coffeeshops rely heavily on tourism.
However, the same rule was quickly abandoned in Amsterdam, where, whether everyone likes it or not, a large amount of the money coming into the city every year comes directly from cannabis tourists. To be exact; the Netherlands makes 400 million euros in tax from cannabis each year. That is not exactly the kind of money that any country can afford to give up. Undesired reputation or not.
As we discussed, the current rules put in place make it impossible to replicate Amsterdam’s model. The biggest barrier being the rules over what cannabis can be sold and where. There are strict guidelines for anyone who wishes to open a dispensary in Canada. While there was a brief period 5 or 6 years ago in which it seemed like major cities were overrun by dispensaries, this is no longer the case. If you do manage to get licensed to open a store, you are limited in what you can sell. Amsterdam’s vague laws surrounding cannabis mean that those supplying the coffeeshops take the biggest risk. It is still illegal for a large scale grow-operation to exist in the Netherlands.
In Canada, cannabis being sold at the stores is all licensed and regulated by the federal government. This alleviates a huge amount of issues of supply that Amsterdam deals with. With that said, many people are unhappy with the cannabis being offered by legal sources. I’ve discussed this topic ad nauseam before. Whether it’s an issue of poor quality, high prices, wasteful packaging or some combination of the three, Canada’s legal cannabis market is not flourishing as some predicted. Many cannabis users rely on MoM sites, like Just Cannabis, to get their weed and edibles.
If smoking lounges were to open here, there would undoubtedly be a lot of customers wanting to bring their own supply. Not only is this not ideal for business owners, but it’s also technically not allowed (booo), as all cannabis is supposed to be able to be traced back to its source…
This raises the obvious question of ‘what about homegrown’ which is perfectly legal in most cities. How can the police determine what you grew vs what you bought when you are just carrying it. Well, logic and government policy rarely fit together in the first place.
Would customers be allowed to bring their own cannabis? Or would you have to buy weed sold at the cafe?
One of the best parts of Amsterdam’s coffeeshops is all of the unique strains that can be found at specific places. If they all had the same menu, offering the same pre-packaged products at the same price (or higher?), I can’t imagine there would be much demand. If they do manage to sell it for cheaper than the cafe aspect is not even necessary, as people are desperately looking for licensed cannabis at a discounted rate.
Of course, none of that actually matters if we cannot resolve the issue of public consumption. Unlike Amsterdam, it is illegal to smoke or vape ANYTHING inside. Some cities, like Edmonton, have already stated that despite their plans for potential cannabis cafes, you would not be able to smoke or vape… This raises the obvious question of what exactly we are supposed to do in these in these shops if not smoke?
According to city councilor Mike Nickels…drink alcohol? He says the first priority would be to help breathe life into the otherwise underwhelming edibles market. It is unclear how this would work as the edibles available are incredibly limited and have restrictions regarding ingredients, colouring and packaging. Furthermore, they are licensed products. This means they each have barcodes. If the shop was to operate as an actual cafe, you’d expect some sort of freshly baked edibles. However, this wouldn’t be allowed under current laws. Customers would have to buy pre-packaged edibles, all limited at 10mg a piece and available already online. Nickels acknowledges that this would not be enough to keep a business afloat so has floated the idea of a half bar half cannabis dispensary with a restaurant in the middle. Edibles and alcohol don’t exactly mix, and I don’t think the combination should be encouraged. Especially by the government.
The ability to have a safe and legal place to consume cannabis should not be a privilege, it should be a right. If it is being licensed and taxed by the government, then there needs to be somewhere where people can consume it. Parks are out of the question. So is the beach. You can’t smoke near business entrances either. Many apartments won’t let you smoke.
Are we asking people to smoke weed in back alleys then? Or should they disobey their lease?
In the last few years, I’ve had the chance to travel to many places where cannabis is legal. I found the same issue everywhere. Whether it was LA or Barcelona; there was nowhere to smoke in public. I asked the people working at the dispensaries where I could smoke and they’d all say they legally could not recommend anywhere. One guy suggested I find a back alley, walk quickly and don’t look sketchy. Is it just me, or does it seem completely illogical to legalize something, sell it and then forbid people from consuming it?
Cannabis cafes are the perfect solution. Look. Nobody is trying to claim that second-hand smoke is harmless. We know better. However, we are not talking about tobacco. When smoking inside establishments were banned, it was because of unwilling bystanders who were forced to take in second hand smoke. Families that had to breathe in the smoke from someone on the other side of the bar.
What is being considered in these cannabis cafes is not that kind of situation. Firstly, anyone who was in there would know that there is smoke in the air. That is the purpose of the business. Secondly, ventilation technology has improved tremendously.
Ontario, on the other hand, is taking a more pragmatic approach. They recognize that consumption would be necessary for it to be a viable business. They are therefore asking citizens to give their feedback on the matter.
If you live in Ontario: reach out and be heard. This is your opportunity.