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Holland’s high life under threat

Questions are being asked about the viability of Holland's liberal drug laws.

In Amsterdam in November last year, hundreds of people gathered at a warehouse in the north-east of the city under a fug of cannabis smoke. They were there for the 25th annual Cannabis Cup – part “tasting” competition, part trade show – organised by High Times magazine as the world’s premier event celebrating all things cannabis.

Young men stood around arguing about crop yields and comparing notes on skunk finishes and the terroir of imported hashish. Celebrity cannabis farmers gave Gardeners’ Question Time-style presentations and announced new strains they had developed.

The event took place against a backdrop of increasing political scrutiny. The security, though friendly, was tight. Signs at the entrance warned attendees: “Possession of cannabis above five grammes per person is not legal under Dutch law.”

“We were worried we might not be able to host it this year,” David Bienenstock, an editor at High Times, told me. “A few months ago, it was really unclear what was going to happen. It’s still a bit uncertain.”

As the US makes decisive moves towards legalisation, decriminalising cannabis for personal use in Colorado and Washington, and while a cross-party select committee has called for a royal commission on drug policy in the UK, Holland is questioning the gedoogbeleid, or tolerance, of soft drugs that has been its policy for the past 36 years.

In 2011, the centre-right Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD) majority government introduced a “weed pass” scheme in three southern provinces, forcing Dutch users to register with their local coffee shop and preventing foreign nationals from buying cannabis.

The VVD planned to roll out the weed pass nationally in January but its proposal ran into resistance. In Maastricht, one of the cities where the legislation was introduced, protests forced the mayor to backtrack. For most Dutch politicians, it’s a matter of pragmatism. The mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, argued that if the weed pass was rolled out nationally, “The 1.5 million tourists will not say, ‘Then no more marijuana.’ They will swarm all over the city looking for drugs. This would lead to more robberies, quarrels about fake drugs and no control of the quality of drugs on the market.”

The political parties remain conflicted over the future of the coffee shops, with those on the left defending the status quo and those on the right favouring more regulation. In November, the government announced that weed-pass legislation would become a local issue. It is anticipated that most provinces will opt out.

In Amsterdam, cannabis will remain available to tourists but many see the new uncertainties as combining the worst of both prohibition and legalisation. In Holland, the battle for the stoner vote continues.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel