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Cannabis retail markets in Amsterdam

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Articles - Cannabis, marijuana & hashisch

Drug Abuse

By Dirk J Korf

Assistant Professor and Senior Researcher Criminological Institute Bonger and Social Sciences Department

University of Amsterdam

Cannabis in the Netherlands

As in most countries, the use of hashish and marijuana is far more pervalent in urban rather than more reural areas. National household surveys have shown a rather stable pattern for almost two decades: about 12% of the 15-24 year olds have experimented with cannabis and of these only about 1% in the last month. The average age of first use is 18. More boys and young men than girls and young women have ever used cannabis (Korf 1988)

The same is true for the capital, Males outnumber female users and although the starting age is about the same in Amsterdam, the prevalence of cannabis use is much higher here, Recently, one quarter of citizens aged 12 years and older reported having ever used hashish or marijuana, including six percent during the last month. Half of the 30-34 year olds have tried cannabis but recent use is most common among 23-24 year olds (15% in the previous month) Recent use is more prevalent among the unemployed and students (Sandwijk et al 1988)

The Amsterdam phenomenon of the "coffeeshop" is not a newly invented kind of shop for the retail sale of 'soft drugs'. The 'Koffiehuis' (coffeehouse) is one of the traditional forms of Dutch public houses - a place where one can drink coffee, eat, read a newspaper and meet friends. After the Second World War, new forms of coffeehouses developed under the (universal) name 'coffeeshop', but the main features remained unchanged - it is an alcohol-free café. Since the late 1970's a number of especially traditional 'koffiehuizen' started to sell marijuana and hashish and many others followed. The situation today is that there are coffeeshops that do sell 'soft drugs' as well those that don’t't. One has to find out for oneself how to distinguish between them.

The Netherlands is widely known for its tolerant drug policy. Some condemn the Dutch way of handling the drug problem, others exult at it. 'Coffeeshops', as the cafes and bars which sell hashish and marijuana are called, are one of the most visible examples of Dutch drug policy. This article will be restricted to the cannabis policy as it has been analysed in some recent studies. Furthermore, the main focus will be on Amsterdam, where the situation is rather atypical for the country as a whole. Nevertheless, where most statements about the effects of legalisation are based on assumptions and projections, a closer look at a more 'extreme' situation as it can be perceived in Amsterdam, can generate empirical knowledge on important topics in the international debate on drug policy.

Why allow dealers to sell 1heir dope? Amsterdam has about 350 coffeeshops, where one can buy hashish and marijuana of varying quality. But how is it possible that this illegal drug can be sold so easily in a Western country? Several legal studies have recently been published on this matter.

According to Frits Ruter, Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam, the Dutch drug law is in line with the international conventions. But legislation, as he states, " ... is not necessarily the same as criminal justice policy" (1990).

At the 1988 conference 'Dutch Drug Policy in Western European Perspective', Advocate-General Lodewijk de Beaufort, a high-ranking official from the Public Prosecutions Department, analysed the development from a legal point of view. He explained why an illegal drug can be so openly used and sold in a Western country that is a signatory to the 1961 Single Convention (1989).

Firstly, the 1976 Opium Act separates 'cannabis products' from 'drugs presenting unacceptable risks'. All violations of the Opium Act are crimes, except for the possession of up to 30gms of hashish or marijuana, which is a petty offence. De facto, it is very unusual to be arrested and prosecuted for the possession of small amounts of cannabis.

This may also be the case in many other countries, as only a small proportion of all those that use cannabis ever get arrested. In many countries, however, a relatively small proportion although a substantial total number - of cannabis users are arrested for possession and small scale dealing, whereas hardly anybody would be arrested for such illicit acts in the Netherlands. This situation reflects a specific Dutch connection between legislation and criminal justice policy.

According to de Beaufort, paragraph 167 of the Dutch Code of Criminal Procedure, the 'expediency principle', empowers the Public Prosecutor to refrain from starting criminal procedures 'on grounds derived from the public interest'. This may also apply to drugs that are classified as dangerous, and thus illegal under the Single Convention. Since the possession of small amounts of hashish or marijuana is only a petty offence, and a repressive policy towards soft drugs would lead to a dangerous overlap with the hard-drug market, such a policy would not serve the public interest. So there are no good reasons for a structural, active investigation and prosecution of cannabis offences.

This criminal justice policy is expressed in the Guidelines for the Investigation and Prosecution of Drug Offences, developed by the Ministry of Justice in 1976 and published in 1980. These guidelines give top priority to production, import, export and large scale trafficking, and a low priority to the sale of small quantities of cannabis. The Guidelines stem from the 1970s, when hashish and marijuana were more closely associated with a subcultural lifestyle than nowadays. In those days, drugs were sold in private places, on the street and also sometimes in youth centres, subsidised by the government or local communities. Selling hashish in such a public place was - and still is illegal, and has been quite a controversial phenomenon for some years. Nevertheless, authorities in some cities preferred to tolerate a 'house dealer' with a more visible and controllable business, instead of continuing the existence of an underground marlçet. The expediency principle left room for such experiments. These practical experiences proved very helpful when the guidelines were being developed. According to the guidelines, the house dealer 'sells hemp products with the trust and protection of the staff of a youth centre, and with the exclusion of others, in that youth centre'. The lowest segment of the cannabis market was, de facto, legalised. However, violating certain conditions, e.g. public advertising and the sale of hard drugs, will lead to immediate action (Van Vliet, in press).

Housedealers, as the Minister of Justice envisaged them in 1976 - as a kind of social worker - hardly exist anymore. Hashish and marijuana are predominantly sold in commercial aces, mainly the so-called coffeeshops. Nevertheless, only in exceptional cases and after deliberation by a 'triangle committee', consisting of the Mayor, the local Head of the Public Prosecution Department and the Chief of Police, can action be taken.

Field studies show that differences in policy exist throughout the country, i.e. Coffeeshops are very unusual in villages and small towns (Korf et al, 1989,1990). On the other hand, no action will be taken in most urban areas, as long as no substantial nuisance is reported (loud music, many customers etc.), minors are not attracted, or illicit hard drugs are not being sold. These regulations vary in strictness depending on local circumstances. This dynamic process explains why the first telephone delivery service for cannabis was immediately closed and most coffeeshops in Amsterdam cannot be recognized anymore by a marijuana leaf emblem posted at the store front (Van Vliet, in press) .

The inner city of Amsterdam

As previously stated, Amsterdam has about 350 coffeeshops, which is probably as many as in the rest of the country. The city, however, accommodates only 700,000 of the Netherland's 15 million inhabitants. Although the prevalence of cannabis use is much higher than elsewhere in the country, this can hardly explain the disproportionate number of coffeeshops. A closer look at the local situation shows a strong concentration of more than 100 coffeeshops in the inner city. In his study 'Cannabis in Amsterdam; a geography of coffeeshops' economist Adriaan Jansen, associate professor at the University of Amsterdam, describes and analyses this phenomenon. During his three year study he visited many coffeeshops, usually several times. He not only registered prices and sales, but also made fascinating field observations and interviewed dealers (1989). Only a small proportion of the population live in the centre of Amsterdam, but millions of tourists and her visitors come to the Dutch capital every year. They spend much of their time in only a small part of the capital: the old inner city, with its canals, museums, shops, markets, cafes, restaurants and sex businesses. Many of these visitors are students and young adults who provide a substantial demand for cannabis, which explains the greater supply possibilities in this area. Similax areas exist in other major European cities, such as Ramblas in Barcelona and Platzspitz in Zurich. However, availability of cannabis in these cities is less visible, certainly less safe and less easy to buy, and it is often sold by street 'addicts'. Jansen, however, looks further. Why are the coffeeshops not evenly spread over this area? From an economic point of view, several kinds of competition can be observed in this 'extraordinary business branch.' Price determines the first kind of competition. Originally, cannabis was sold for various reasons, but profit was certainly the least of these. Importation, wholesale vending and distribution were not strictly separated. Consequently, the increase in the number of coffeeshops in Amsterdam led to competition. Some examples of price competition have been observed (e.g."buy-two-pay-for-one" on Wednesday at the Bulldog), but up to now this kind of competition has not been very influential. Prices vary from approximately 4 to 15 guilders per gram, depending on the kind of hashish or marijuana sold. Wholesale prices, on the other hand, are rather stable.

A variety of types of cannabis has made for competition between dealers for some time. Nowadays, almost every coffeeshop in the inner city sells more than five kinds of hashish and more than five kinds of marijuana. Other preparations, such as 'hash cake' and 'space balls' can also increase the variation.

The usual price for a 34gm bag of hashish or marijuana is 25 guilders. Some years ago, new coffeeshops successfully introduced quantity competition by selling smaller bags (11.5gms) for 10 guilders. Others started selling cannabis that was not prepacked, so customers can buy a specific amount. Nowadays, about 10% of the hashish and marijuana sold in the inner city is weighed on the spot.

Choosing a good location provides a fourth kind of competition. The first coffeeshops were located in out-of-theway places. Since an important market (demand side) comes from outside the city, new coffeeshops are located near Central Station and in tourist streets. Coffeeshops located along these routes show perfectly how ineffective price competition can be, as cannabis is about 25-50% more expensive here. A second market is more dependent on the local population. These coffeeshops are located at and around entertainment centres like cinemas, theatres and discotheques.

The fifth dimension relates to the style and atmosphere of different premises. Dimly lit coffeeshops with worn carpets, broken furniture and the smell of incense, reminiscent of the old, hippy days hardly exist anymore. Some still remind one of the seventies, but new customers are not readily attracted. At the other end of the spectrum, one can find 'extremely normal' coffeeshops; trendily decorated, bright, with many mirrors and chrome fittings. Only the smell of hashish differentiates them from other cafes where no alcoholic beverages are sold.

All these components may contribute to the success of a coffeeshop, but in the inner city location competition is most fierce. As the majority of customers do not live in the area, coffeeshops have to be located along the tourist routes to be commercially successful, as Jansen shows in his study. During his

investigations, he noted that coffeeshops in locations further away from tourist areas were less successful than those sited in busy streets, around the entertainment centres.

A Common Neighbourhood

About one third of the coffeeshops are located within a small area of Amsterdam - the inner city. Coffeeshops here reflect the metropolitan character of Amsterdam. This, however, does not mean that they are typical of the local situation. Coffeeshops are not only unevenly spread throughout the innercity, but also throughout the city as a whole, as in some neighbourhoods one can hardly find any coffeeshops. Peer Glandorff noted this phenomenon in the course of his survey of coffeeshops in 1989. Around his college near the Rijksmuseum - and close to Jansen's study area - he saw no coffeeshops at all, but within a few minutes walking, further away from the innercity, he found plenty of them (1989).

Although this neighbourhood (called 'de Pijp') has few discotheques, theatres or cinemas, it is a lively residential and shopping area. Especially the heart of the neighbourhood, the Albert Cuyp market (the focal point of the east part of de Pijp) attracts thousands of people locals, visitors and tourists - coming every day to buy fresh vegetables or fish, clothes gnd many exotic products. The market is also a well~known meeting place for the many different ethnic groups in the city: Surinams, Turks, hIorrocans, etc. During his field study in de Pijp, Glandorff registered 22 coffeeshops selling hashish or marijuana, 20 cafes selling alcohol and 2 cafes selling alcohol as well as cannabis.

At first sight, the Glandorff study seems to be in agreement with the Jansen study, as it reports quite a lot of coffeeshops in other neighbourhoods characterized by its function as a meeting place. The Albert Cuyp market is also an important meeting place for many people. But, most surprisingly, none of the coffeeshops here are located in the market. As noted by the Belgian criminologist Martine Marechal (whose study will be reviewed later in this article), coffeeshops are mainly located in side streets, away from the busy and, in summertime, highly touristic market. The coffeeshops in de Pijp depend much more on the local customers than those in the inner city. This implies that other competition variables play a more important role and could possibly be more important than the place where coffeeshops are located.

In de Pijp, like in the city centre, the locations were not equally spread over the neighbourhood. This contrast is even more noticeable than in the inner city. Almost all the coffeeshops in de Pijp can be found on the east side of the canal (Boerenwetering), but hardly any on the west side. A brief examination of the socio-economic profile of de Pijp provides some explanation for this.

The east side of this area is low status in comparison with the west side. Although the educational level is rather high, the average income is low. This can be explained by the many students who live in de Pijp. The apartments in the northeast are rather small, the density of population is high, there are many unemployed, and there is an overrepresentation of minority groups. The southeast has a somewhat higher status than the northeast. Part of the housing has recently been renovated or rebuilt; there are more shops, restaurants and small enterprises. The densely built northeast is where most coffeeshops can be found, but also mosx cafes and bars.

The other side of the canal, the northwest, is mainly residential and has a low density of population. The streets are much cleaner, housing is of a higher quality, sometimes even luxurious. Here, we find less singles and divorced and more traditional families. There are doctors and dentists, as well as consulates. Also, some upper level schools are located in this part of the neighbourhood. Unemployment is low and the population is predominantly white, higher middle-class. The southwest is a somewhat less quiet and less chic living area. It has some stores, banks and even a few cafes and coffeeshops. So the overall picture of this side of the canal is very different from the east part. The west side can be characterised by a lack of street activity, higher standard of living and a stronger traditional orientation.

Other Aspects

Where Jansen emphasises the importance of choosing the right location in a busy tourist zone, Glandorff's study suggests that other factors influence the spacial distribution of coffeeshops over the city. In de Pijp, the presence of many visitors undoubtedly contributes to the higher concentration of coffeeshops than in other areas.

Whereas tourists (foreign and domestic) strongly influence the social and economic structure of the lowest level of the cannabis market in the innercity, in other areas local citizens play a more important, and maybe even central role. From a socio-economic point of view, lower status areas with students and unemployed indicate a higher demand (east side of de Pijp) than wealthier and more family orientated areas (west side).

But demand as such does not automatically generate supply; the presence of many (potential) cannabis users does not guarantee the opening of coffeeshops. Opposition from residents in the neighbourhood can prevent entrepreneurs from starting a coffeeshop, as has happened on many occasions in the past . An example of community opposition occurred some years ago when the Municipal Health Service opened a methadone clinic in a well-to-do area. Citizens demonstrated against the clinic, successfully mobilised the media, molested staff members and damaged the windows and door. Similar actions occur in smaller towns, with their more traditional views, where coffeeshops are not allowed to open or are quickly closed down due to civil actions. Even in Rotterdam, the second largest city of the Netherlands, opening a coffeeshop in a busy shopping street would be a novelty, but would lead to

protests by 'normal' businesses. Hence, coffeeshops are almost exclusively located in out of the way places. When we compare both parts of de Pijp, it seems plausible that there is a stronger commitment to traditional norms and values and more social control against subcultural lifestyles on the west side.

Across the canal, the situation is very different. The many young citizens frequently change apartments and spend much of their time in other neighbourhoods. Many new immigrants are predominantly orientated towards their own ethnic groups, have their own norms, values and beliefs (Turks, Moroccans and Surinamese have their own stores and cafes). For both groups, young citizens and immigrants, there is not a strong need to be closely involved with the main culture in the neighbourhood. This certainly does not imply a lack of social control within these groups, but it seems plausible that social control in terms of protection of traditional lifestyles and resistance to deviance from mainstream norms is stronger in the wealthier and familyorientated area than in the lower status neighbourhood with a transient and multicultural population.

So far this article has concentrated on the demand side of the cannabis market and the social structure in de Pijp. Now, let us take a look at supply side. On the eastern side, one can not only find many more cannabis users, but small scale dealers can rent or buy premises for a reasonable price here too. They do not need much investment to begin a coffeeshop, so it is relatively easy to start a business career. However, as is true of any new business venture, many do not make much money and some go bankrupt. Nevertheless, running a coffeeshop can be a challenge, especially for those who have difficulty breaking into the regular market, eg. minority groups, those who are unemployed and have a low education.

For these newcomers to the economic market, running a coffeeshop could mean the first step towards a higher socio-economic position. Moreover, running a coffeeshop, even if it is not very profitable, at least provides independence. Not surprisingly, some oi the coffeeshops in de Pijp are run by more idealistically than economically motivated persons. They sell 'good dope for a fair price' and act more like the social worker type the Advocate General had in mind when the Guidelines for the 'house dealer' were drawn up. In such a coffeeshop, the price of food and beverages will be relatively low.

A Typical Coffeeshop

Marechal gives a good example of the 'idealistic' type of coffeeshop in de Pijp. The Kabouter (The Goblin) is a very small place. There is a football table, as in most coffeeshops. An immense aquarium against one wall. Posters in the bathroom inform clients about AIDS, those in the cafe bear a political message. The middle-aged owner is strongly attached to his place and customers.

For Martine Marechal, studying coffeeshops in de Pijp was like the discovery of another world. To her, the meant 'concretisation of an "intelligent' laissez-faire, so characteristic of Dutch pragmatism'(1989). She did not study all the coffeeshops in the neighbourhood, but looked at different types. Some were almost exclusively visited by Moroccans or Surinamese. The Moroccan coffeeshop reminded her of the Arab cafes in Brussels: a rather empty place, some tables and kitchen chairs and North African paintings on the wall. The Surinam coffeeshop is dominated by an 'afro' style: loud reggae music, some rastas and tropical paintings. Most coffeeshops, however had a mixed clientele.

From her observations, Marechal constructed a hypothetical model, which reflects all the most significant elements of the coffeeshops in the neighbourhood

'The Ideal Pipe' is not located on a busy street. It is not big about 50 square metres. Plants in the large front window, so individual customers can not easily be recognized from the outside. The interior is white. Three or four customers at a large round table near the window discuss welfare, politics and music. Another customer reads a magazine. A young mother with a baby takes a break from shopping and drinks a cup of coffee. Table football and two slot machines in the corner The bar * also white and clean, the furniture is another colour Music is playing A young white man behind the bar smokes a joint with a customer; they talk about music and discotheques. He shows the price-list to those who want to buy hashish or marijuana, which he sells in prepacked bags (10or25guilders each) or cuts and weighs to order. The bartender is a young black woman. She serves soft drinks, coffee, tea and hot chocolate, sells sweets and rolling papers. She is also busy keeping the place clean. Most customers are white and predominantly male, but some are black. At the table in the back a small group appears quite lethargic. They listen to the music; the joint passes without much verbal communication.

Where other countries can only theorise about decriminalisation of hashish and marijuana, it is a social reality in Amsterdam. This reality, Marechal concludes, is very different from other European countries. Instead of being rejected (as a foreigner, youth, black, unemployed or even all at once), the hash user can define him/herself here as different". But being 'alternative', she states, does not imply being part of a subculture.

Separating Markets

The three field studies reviewed Jansen, Glandorff, Marechal had different targets, but they all describe how fast the hash selling coffeeshops began to resemble normal cafes. The main difference is that they seldom serve alcoholic beverages, but soft drinks, tea and coffee instead. A coffeeshop is not only a place to buy cannabis, but also a meeting place, where one can have breakfast or lunch, play table football or billiards, read newspapers and magazines, communicate and meet friends.

Because coffeeshops are, in the main, based on economic principles, it is in the interest of the semi-legal entrepreneur to keep the soft and hard drug business strictly separated. The three studies reviewed all come to the same conclusion: coffeeshops do not sell hard-drugs.

Jansen characterises the relationship between the small scale dealers and the authorities as 'a subtle form of public/private partnership', which created possibilities for a rather open and profitable business. This economic activity has had a positive influence on the successful implementation of one of the main goals set by the authorities, i.e. strict separation of soft and hard drugs. The most successful coffeeshops are those without any problems with the authorities. Asking for hard drugs in a coffeeshop, Jansen concludes, is as absurd as ordering a zebra steak in an ordinary meat store.


The Dutch coffeeshop experiment has not resulted in a simple blueprint for the legalisation of cannabis. It does, hewever, illustrate a pragmatic intermediate solution: small scale dealing is tolerated under certain conditions, although still illegal; while import, export and large-scale dealing are actively prosecuted. This solution is very different from the supermarket scenario, where young people can buy drugs like Coca-Cola and popcorn, so favoured among prohibitionists in their warnings against legalisation. In fact, the coffeeshops illustrate that a democratic society is able to handle a drug problem in a less prohibitionistic, more cost effective and less harmful way. The Dutch coffeeshops falsify the prohibitionistic assumption that decriminalisation inevitably leads to an increase in drug use. Those who believe in a repressive policy towards cannabis need better arguments, since the Dutch coffeeshops do not support their deterrent prophecies.

On the other hand, although hard drugs cannot be bought in coffeeshops, they are still available. Apparently, it is possible to split the soft and hard drug markets, but a decriminalised monocannabis market does not automatically

lead to the disappearance of other illicit drugs. This is not surprising - heroin has been around for almost a century and cocaine even longer, to a greater or lesser degree. Neither a prohibitionistic nor a more tolerant approach has been able totally to eradicate these markets.

The experiment also shows that there is no simple blue-print for the one and only 'correct' drug policy. Within the city of Amsterdam and, moreover, throughout the Netherlands, different forms of small scale hashish dealing are tolerated, in agreement with the local situation. Less legal repression apparently does not imply anarchy and may mean more subtle social control, even in the interest of those who sell drugs.


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Glandorff P 1989 De ruimtelijke spreiding van coHeeshops in een Amsterdams stadsdeel. Montessori Iyceu m, Amsterdam/N L.

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Marechal M. 1989 Prohibir la prohibition; politique criminelle en matire de cannabis aux Pays Bas. Universite Catholique, Faculte de Droit, Louvain/B.

Roter C.F. 1990 The Role of Law Entorcement in Dutch Drug Policy. Metropolink Working Paper #2, Amsterdam/NL.

Sandwijk J.R et al 1988 Het gebruik van legale en illegale drugs in Amsterdam. ISG Amsterdam/NL. (This face-to-face household survey was repeated in winter 1989 and spring 1 990).

Guidelines for the Investigation and Prosecution of Criminal Offences under the Opium Act (in Dutch) Staatscourant (Government newspaper), July 18th 1980. The Hague/NL Government Printing Office 1980.

Van Vliet H.J. in press The Uneasy Decriminalization Hotstra Law Review, Hofstra University, New York/USA.


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