AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands — In the back street cannabis den, a French-speaking Arab youth with a pierced lower lip and a rhinestone encrusted baseball cap leans across the bar to order his fix of choice.
"Hot chocolate, please," he intones in heavily accentuated English.
"With whipped cream?" asks the fresh-faced young barrista in the 420 Cafe.
A group of teenage English boys, their polite manners contrasting with the hair-raising heavy metal designs on their T-shirts, is also drinking the warm, frothy brew. Above them a large flat screen TV is showing a documentary about Antarctic bird life.
A penguin protects her chicks from a hungry gull as two Spanish girls debate whether to get high on "White Widow," “Blueberry” — brands from the marijuana menu — or to take a slice of the peanut butter and white chocolate weed-laced "space cake."
From inside this cozy, 100-year-old-bar-turned-hash-house it appears the Amsterdam drug scene has mellowed since the Dutch government began to "decriminalize" cannabis in the late 1970s.
"Some specimens of my tribe, and I think I can include myself, are considered to be respectable citizens," said Michael Veling, owner of the 420 Cafe.
“We even have a working relationship with the tax office,” added Veling, a spokesman for the Cannabis Retailers Association which represents many of the more than 700 “coffee shops” that openly serve the drug in the Netherlands.
After 30 years of high times, Amsterdam continues to attract waves of youthful tourists eager to smoke a reefer or two without having to look over their shoulder for the cops. However Dutch attitudes are changing. Successive conservative-led governments have tightened restrictions on cannabis sales, while local youngsters seem increasingly indifferent to the coffee shops’ charms.
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A report from European Union’s drug monitoring center made headlines in November when it showed young Dutch people lagged well behind many of their European neighbors when it came to smoking weed.
According to the survey, 11.4 percent of Dutch people aged 15 to 24 had consumed cannabis over the previous year, down from 14.3 percent eight years earlier. The Netherlands was ranked 13th out of 23 nations — way behind countries such as Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic, which register more than double the Dutch rate.
In the 420 Cafe, the only locals in view were a group of 50-something friends of the owner nodding contentedly to the Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix tunes coming from the sound system.
“It’s not as exciting [for Dutch kids] as it is in other countries and we had education together with the tolerant attitude, so our kids know about drugs,” said Veling.
“Our customers are mainly from England and the United States, but because of the economic crisis the percentage of continental Europeans has risen,” he said. “Last summer we saw the first wave of Chinese middle class, that’s a very promising market.”
Veling is perhaps unique among coffee shop owners in that he is also an active member and one-time city councilor with the conservative Christian Democratic Appeal party of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, which has done much to clamp down on the Dutch dope trade in recent years.
Coffee shops have seen the maximum amount they can sell customers reduced from 30 grams to 5 grams. In 2007 a ban on cannabis outlets serving alcohol was enforced, meaning coffee shop owners had to choose between booze or pot — which explains why the strongest drinks at Cafe 420 are coffee, tea and chocolate. Moreover, advertising for cannabis is banned, so while souvenir shops selling T-shirts festooned with marijuana-leaf designs abound, coffee shops are not allowed to use the image.
Many city councils prohibit the opening of new coffee shops and are quick to shut down any that break the rules. A ban on smoking tobacco in all Dutch cafes and bars hit the coffee shops hard when it was introduced in July 2008, since cannabis cigarettes are often mixed with tobacco. Now the rule is widely ignored.
"There are all kinds of ridiculous regulations,” said Fredrick Polak, a veteran campaigner for more liberal drug laws. “It does not work, it is counterproductive … the state has no business interfering with individual grown-up citizens and what they want to put in their bodies."
Polak, a white-haired, 67-year-old psychiatrist who works at Amsterdam’s drug dependency unit, said Dutch authorities have caved into pressure from neighboring nations concerned that so many young people were buying cannabis in the Netherlands to take back home.
French, Belgian and German authorities have been particularly worried about a proliferation of outlets in border cities, so the Dutch government has sought to crack down on “drug tourism.”
The cities of Bergen op Zoom and Rosendaal near the Belgian border closed down six of their eight coffee shops last year after residents complained about rowdy behavior from an estimated 25,000 drug tourists passing through every week.
In the southeastern city of Maastricht, authorities have proposed making coffee shops members-only clubs, effectively banning foreign day-trippers. The country’s largest coffee shop, Checkpoint in the southern border town of Terneuzen, was closed down in 2008 at a time when it was reportedly serving 3,000 customers a day.
Polak complains that criminal elements continue to play a leading role in the cannabis trade due to an anomaly in the laws: While the retailing is tolerated, wholesale trade remains illegal, meaning coffee shop owners often have to get their supplies from criminal networks, which are also involved in illegal exports of the drug and violent turf wars.
“With our system, for people who want to smoke marijuana it’s very pleasant, but on the supply side here there is no control, it’s still completely illegal, so the wrong people make very much money," Polak said.