I have never been to Amsterdam, owing to a deathly fear of airplanes, but our esteemed editor Georgio Valentino is a frequent visitor, and he assures me this is big news. Indeed, recent developments in the Netherlands amount to a wholesale about-face on one of the fundamental aspects of the famously permissive country’s public brand—and these changes could have a butterfly effect on our own culture.
For ages, long before the legalization of cannabis became a matter worthy of serious discussion, let alone something that could actually be implemented, libertarians and libertines in this country and many others looked to Amsterdam as an example of how our own societies could potentially evolve; in turn, the city became a mecca of sorts for those wishing to indulge in relative safety and security. Even if we knew nothing else about Amsterdam (and I certainly do not), everyone knew that weed was legal there. In fact, damn near everything was legal, or at least tolerated, from hard drugs to prostitution.
Europe has always tended to skew liberal on drug policy, but Amsterdam went further than any other city in the world. Its red light district is famous for a refreshingly relaxed attitude toward freedom in all its sundry forms, and that reputation has attracted tourists from every corner of the earth like moths to a flame. You could go to a coffeeshop and smoke in public then do some literal window-shopping for ladies of the night (or day, as it were). As cannabis culture grew, well-heeled stoners gravitated there year-round, in particular for the legendary Cannabis Cup.
Historical records show that marijuana has been legal there since at least 1927, with government enforcing some laws against it through the ‘70s. The first coffeeshops opened in 1975; that number grew to more than 1,500 within 20 years. Other drugs are essentially legal, as well, and that has made the city a major hub for international drug traffic. With a population of just 1.1 million, it has become one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, drawing nearly 17 million people in 2018. But all of that is set to change, and soon.
Femke Halsema, who’s been the city’s mayor since July 2018, recently announced plans to revamp the red light district, essentially banning cannabis among foreigners and choking foot traffic, effective April 1. Her plan has elicited pushback from business owners, tour-group organizers, and the roughly 10,000 sex workers in the city (nearly 500 of whom work the windows of the red light district and all of whom will see their incomes curbed drastically if these changes come to pass).
Theirs is very much a first-world problem: too many tourists. Studies suggest that these changes could potentially reduce their tourist trade by at least half. One hopes for a reasonable compromise, but the odds of that are slim. The good news, though, is that their loss could be our gain. With many major cities having gone all-in on the cannabiz, we are likely to see the Amsterdam model duplicated in places like Denver, Seattle and San Francisco. Hell, maybe some of them will come visit us now.