Amsterdam: A City’s Journey to Cannabis Capital of the World

18th May 2020

Cannabis Coffee Shops may be commonplace in towns and cities across the Netherlands, tourists flock to Amsterdam in the highest numbers. But, how did this picturesque canal city become the Cannabis capital of the world?

The Netherlands has long been considered the place to go for so-called ‘Cannabis Tourists’. With an estimated 19 million people visiting Amsterdam last year, many of the city’s visitors will call into one of it’s famous ‘coffee shops’.

Current Cannabis Laws

The first relevant point to address when discussing Amsterdam’s Cannabis reputation is the matter of legality. Despite popular misconceptions, Cannabis is not technically legal in the Netherlands.

Shocking, I know. But, the official stance is that consumption and possession of small amounts of Cannabis are decriminalised and “tolerated”. To make things even more confusing, the production and sale of Cannabis remain a criminal offense – that is, unless you are a registered coffee shop.

The contradiction here is that, although coffee shops are legally permitted to sell their products, they are forced to buy from illegal producers. However, a government-run scheme is now aiming to solve this problem. The scheme will assess the possibility of licensing government-approved growers to address this issue.

History of Cannabis in the Netherlands

In 1973, the Netherlands took the step to distinguish between Cannabis products and ‘hard drugs’, like cocaine and heroin. This was followed up with the decriminalisation bill three years later.

There are other countries which have also opted to decriminalise some drugs – and in Portugal’s case, all drugs – in a bid to shift drug use from a criminal issue to a health issue. However, the Netherlands decided to take an even more liberal and, some would say, pragmatic approach to the issue.

Not only would consumption and possession be decriminalised, but the existence of retail outlets would also be “tolerated”. These outlets are what we see in their hundreds, today – coffee shops.


Although there have been few changes to the country’s official stance on Cannabis, some have argued for changes to the arrangement. Plans to move retail outlets out of city centres, and a ban on tourists are among the proposals put forward.

The ‘Weed Pass’

In 2011, some cities and towns noticed some negative effects of Cannabis tourism, particularly those close to the borders with other countries. The Mayor of Maastricht complained that there were fewer parking spaces for residents. Concern was also expressed about illegal drug dealers targeting and following tourists into town centres.

This resulted in a trial of the ‘Weed Pass’. This involved customers being required to prove that they were a resident on the Netherlands, in order to be permitted entrance. Amsterdam was exempted from the trial, however, and its tourism continued to flourish.

In return for the city’s exemption, the Mayor of Amsterdam agreed to close any coffee shops which were within 250m of a school. This was also a law that was carried across the whole country.

The scheme was later scrapped, with cities left to make their own choice on the Weed Pass. Some cities in the Netherlands – like Maastricht – still continue to restrict tourists.

Currently, it is estimated that 25-30% of Amsterdam’s tourists visit a coffee shop. The country’s coffee shops are also thought to bring in around 400 million in tax, annually.


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