The modern cannabis culture of Amsterdam and the birth of coffeeshops


The history of modern cannabis culture in Amsterdam stretches back to the 1960s. Use of psychoactive drugs increased, along with heavier drugs such as heroin and opium. The American hippie culture of the 1960s greatly influenced the drug use in Holland. Cannabis was brought in Amsterdam by the Americans, sailors, North African traders.

The anti-drug laws dictated by the Dutch government were quite restrictive. In 1953, cannabis became illegal. Until the 1960s, the number of all drug-related violations brought to court, including LSD and opium, was considerably low: 10 to 25 cases annually. In 1966, however, drug violations escalated.

Cannabis use was also prevalent in intellectual circles, which became vocal with claims that cannabis use did not lead to addiction and imprisonment on the ground of cannabis-related violations was too rigorous. In 1965, the small hippie movement Provo, “provoked” the authorities by organizing manifestations and activities and smoking cannabis out in the open. The movement later developed into a cultural phenomenon. Provo’s founder, Robert Jasper Grootveld, started growing cannabis on the roof of his boat. Cannabis dealers sold pot and hash in Amsterdam clubs such as Paradiso and Melkweg, while the majority of hippies smoked cannabis in public in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark.

At first, the Dutch police persecuted cannabis users. The Amsterdam police drug department, comprised of 6 police officers, arrested people for possession of 5 or more grams of cannabis. The number of drug violations brought to the Dutch courts rose from 74 cases in 1966 to 544 in 1969. Soon, the increased heroin addiction throughout the country led the government to change its position on drug use and decide to focus on its eradication. In 1969, the public prosecutor’s office issued specific guidelines for prioritization in the implementation of drug legislation.

The Dutch pop festival held in Rotterdam in June 1970 is considered as the first considerable implementation of the 1969 guidelines issued by the Public Prosecutor. Instead of arresting cannabis users, authorities decided to observe the crowd gathered for the festival. This is the beginning of the informal tolerance policy.

It is here that most police officers witnessed drug use for the first time, as part of the new youth culture, and according to police officer Ottevanger: “We simply couldn’t report it as something bad or unpleasant because the atmosphere was wonderful and there was no reason to believe that something bad would occur”.

Cannabis spread fast, but police officers noticed that the entire cannabis scene was quite peaceful and friendly. Repression seemed almost impossible, as well as unjustified. Soon politicians and lawyers stood up for decriminalization, even complete legalization of cannabis. Cannabis users acquired the characteristics of a specific sub-culture.

The rise of coffeeshops

People’s determination to use cannabis despite the restrictive state laws urged the creation of new cultural models – coffeeshops. Mellow Yellow, the first coffeeshop, at the time called a “teashop”, was opened in 1972. Wernard Bruining, one of Mellow Yellow’s owners, in a VPRO documentary, said that at the beginning the coffeeshop functioned as a bakery. The place was frequented by friends who would come to take light drugs, smoke a joint, have a cup of tea. Later they came up with the idea to open as a coffeeshop or a tea house. Wernard would buy cannabis from a dealer called Cesar, usually a kilo which he then shared in small pieces to sell to customers. It proved to be a golden formula for coffeeshops. The lines in front of the coffeeshops were as long as 100 metres, full of people waiting to go inside.

The teahouse services were illegal, but due to the political climate, the government decided against closing it. Mellow Yellow at first aimed to maintain a low profile (avoid publicity). They would open only after 6 p.m. and had no advertising. Its initial success inspired others to follow suit. In 1975, another two coffeeshops in Amsterdam were founded: Bulldog Coffeeshop, owned by Henk de Vries and Coffeeshop Rusland.

In 1976, the Law on Opium was revised by introducing  clear distinction between “substances with a big risk for the individual’s health” and “cannabis products”. In 1980’s, the number of coffeeshops peaked. Regulations specific to the coffeeshops were developed in 1991 and adopted in 1994.

In addition to national regulation, Amsterdam prohibits alcohol sale in coffeeshops, serving minors and advertising and sale of heavy drugs, and allows only 5 grams of cannabis per person.

Towards the end of 2008, the city passed the decision to close all coffeeshops in the perimeter of 250 meters of a school in the consequent years. Mellow Yellow was closed in January 2017 for this reason.

Coffeeshops in Holland are not a symbol of freedom or democracy representative only for this country, but rather the inspiration for people around the world fighting for their right to free consumption of cannabis in their own countries. I doubt the Dutch people ever planned such development, however nowadays we are witnessing how the policies of one country shaped by the influence of a subculture are slowly changing the world.

Irena Jovanovska

The author is attending Master’s studies in Biology at Lund University in Sweden. She has been working on public relations and is a manager of social media at HOPS – Healthy Options Project Skopje since 2015. She is also the initiator of the campaign “Budenje” (Awakening) dedicated to people with rare diseases. Irena Jovanovska is a photographer and a human rights activist for marginalized communities.

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