Dazed & Confused: The growing pains of the Netherlands' new wietpas policy

By now you've probably heard about the new "wietpas" policy... or at least the bitter lamentations of locals and tourists alike. It's been covered by international media outlets ranging from The New York Times to Al Jazeera. Even NMA, the cheeky Taiwanese cartoon news show, has tackled the topic.

Despite an attempt by opponents to fight the controversial new policy in court in April, it went into effect in the Netherlands' three southernmost provinces on May 1. The rest of the country is set to adopt these rules in 2013.

According to the policy, foreigners are no longer allowed to legally purchase cannabis in "coffeeshops" while Dutch citizens and expats with residence cards still can, provided they're willing to show proof of a permanent address in the Netherlands and sign up for a wietpas ("weed pass" in English). Coffeeshops, each now re-regulated as private clubs, have a mandated limit of 2.000 passes.

Since the law's induction in early May, residents and shop owners in southern cities have complained about a rise in street dealers and other issues while communities just across the provinces' borderlines have noted an uptick in tourists and locals in search of hassle-free marijuana.

Some southern shops have fought the new policy by closing their doors in protest. Opponents of the wietpas in areas across the country have also staged public demonstrations.

While shop owners continue to fight the law on appeal in the courts, it's hard to ignore the unintentional consequences impacting residents down south. In addition to a noticeable uptick in illegal drug trafficking, the wietpas has proven unpopular.

Few locals and expats are willing to sign up for the pass out of fear that their names might wind up on a government list or that their employers will find out about their recreational habits and use it against them.

Despite being tolerated for nearly four decades, there remains a stigma surrounding the drug in the Netherlands. As such, many are opting to head north where they can still purchase marijuana without having to sign up for a pass.

Meanwhile, in Maastricht, hotel and restaurant bookings are reportedly down as international tourists head elsewhere. In the first few weeks following the introduction of the law, 50 street dealers were apprehended by the city's authorities. Over the course of May, the number of registered complaints about drug-related nuisances quadrupled to 619.

Elsewhere, arrests for drug-related offenses dramatically increased to 101 in Limburg in May, up from a monthly average of 5. The complaints, declining tourism revenue and soaring arrest numbers didn't stop Maastricht mayor Onno Hoes from calling the new policies a success at a press conference on May 31.

Marc Josemans, the owner of a shop called "Easy Going" and the chairman of Maastricht's coffee shop association, cited his concerns (see videos below).

After his business was shut down by authorities, he vowed to fight both the closure and the policy. He's arguing that the wietpas is a form of indirect prohibition; that it will chase away customers and "strangle the life out of coffeeshops."

Josemans may have a point. Since 1976, the Netherlands has utilised a policy of "tolerance" towards marijuana. While it has never been, officially, made legal, use of the drug is permitted and it can be sold in coffeeshops.

Problems that arose in the years that followed, including poor enforcement by police and shops that sold harder drugs like heroin and cocaine under-the-counter, led to a tightening of regulations beginning in the late '80s. As a response, shops in many cities joined together in trade unions and have since strived to follow a progressively strict set of rules.

An increasingly conservative national government in the 2000s encouraged local councils to harshly enforce newer regulations, leading to shop closures and an overall decline in their numbers nationwide. The wietpas is only the latest in a long series of crackdowns on marijuana in the Netherlands and there's no arguing that plenty of citizens and politicians would like to see it banned altogether.

On the other side of the debate, shop owners and marijuana advocates argue that the drug causes fewer health risks and problems than alcohol - the Netherlands has recently seen a dramatic uptick in teenage binge drinking resulting in hospital visits.

The drug also attracts key tourism dollars, especially in cities like Amsterdam, and the wietpas is likely to lead to a decrease in visitors from abroad. According to Josemans, over 440 people may lose their jobs in Maastricht as a result of the law.

While other nations like Spain, Canada and even the United States continue to decriminalise marijuana, it is curious that the Netherlands is moving in the opposite direction. One estimate claims that outright legalising the drug and taxing it might add 850 million euros a year to the government's coffers.

Given the ongoing recession, rising unemployment and an overall decline in tax revenue, it's becoming obvious the country's marijuana mandates are as archaic as they are reactionary and short-sighted.

Brandon H.


Brandon H.

I'm a freelance journalist currently residing in the Netherlands.

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