The evolution of coffeeshops in the Netherlands - The breakthrough, which one was the first, and how they have developed to the glory of today.
The coffee shop phenomenon began in the early 1970's. Even then, the Netherlands realised that the war on drugs was lost and that they had to find a way of reducing the impact of drugs on their society. To do that, they made a clear distinction between hard and soft drugs and concentrated their law enforcement effort on hard drugs. Smugglers and dealers of hard drugs were to be hunted down and prosecuted; hard drug addicts were to be treated as sick, like alcoholics; and those in possession of cannabis were to be virtually ignored.
The first coffee shops exploited this situation by openly selling cannabis. They were frequently busted but kept coming back for more. There is some debate about which was the first coffee shop, but the most famous was certainly The Bulldog, established in 1975 in a former brothel in the Red Light district. The real first was possibly Mellow Yellow, and even before that The Melkweg was doing a bit of dealing. Rusland was another pioneer.
In 1976 the first steps were taken to decriminalise cannabis. The law was changed so that the possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis was no longer a criminal offence. Coffee shops, however, remained completely illegal until 1980. Nevertheless, they continued to thrive and multiply.
In 1980 the gedoogbeleid ("tolerance policy") towards coffee shops began. As long as there were never any hard drugs on the premises and they were reasonably discreet, they were generally left alone. Since then coffee shops have spread across Amsterdam and into most parts of the Netherlands. Initially, most Dutch people disapproved of coffee shops. Over time attitudes have softened and they are now widely accepted, but the Netherlands is subject to constant international pressure from less enlightened governments like those in France and US.
By the 1990's Amsterdam considered that it had too many coffee shops and that some were selling hard drugs. Encouraged by international pressure they decided that drastic action was required. At the same time, some of the better coffee shops were organising themselves into a union, the BCD (Bond van Cannabis Detaillisten). After some argument, a compromise was agreed between the city council and the members of the BCD.
In 1995 it was decided to reduce the number of coffee shops by closing all those engaged in illegal activities. The remainder would then be licensed by the council. The number of licences was frozen and the licences made non-transferable in an effort to further reduce numbers over time. All coffee shops now display a small green and white sticker that shows that they are licensed to sell cannabis. A more conservative national government over the past few years has inspired local councils to strictly enforce regulations by closing any shops that slip up. Closed shops are not replaced so the overall number continues to diminish.
Outside Amsterdam, the situation varies between localities. Coffee shop density is highest where population is highest, that is, in the Randstad, the doughnut-shaped urban area formed by Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, The Hague and all the cities and towns imbetween. The policy towards coffeeshops is decided at a local level. In some towns there are none whatsoever. In others they are not allowed to display signs or are subject to other limitations.