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For decades, at least until the advent of commercial Cannabis in the U.S., Amsterdam was the world’s beacon of freedom for ganja, evident in the city’s lax coffee-shop-availability, and rehashed in legendary tales of starry-eyed European vacations. The stoner’s pilgrimage long-consisted of a trip there to attend the annual High Times Cup, the ultimate party for the converging to celebrate cannabis unscathed, while the rest of aficionados watched from afar in jealousy and wonder.
Flash forward to late 2014 -this past November--when High Times presented the 26th installment of their Cup expo. After years of peaceable existence in the city of Amsterdam, the venue doors were shut on the first morning, as the magazine announced an ultimatum from the Mayor’s office. People were being turned away. There was talk about potential arrest, imminent police threat, and a “crackdown.”
The Denver Post’s Cannabist was among the first to publish reports on the subject, and not without a lilt of shock: it was unlike anything that would ever happen in modern Colorado.
“Imagine my surprise when I came across post after post about the mayor of Amsterdam essentially shutting down the Cannabis Cup,” pined Cannabist Editor Ricardo Baca. “Sure enough, the Cannabis Cup has hit a snag in so-called ‘pot-friendly’ Amsterdam.” Details continued to pour in. The Cup was going to continue, but now with strict rules limiting how much cannabis could be possessed by event-goers, restricting vendor rights to give away cannabis, as well as prohibiting the use of concentrates.
Some on social networks discussed the High Times team’s failure to secure a permit for the event, even though they’d announced they had. In a direct response to the shut-down and social media gossip, High Times Editor-in-Chief Dan Skye posted an “Open Letter,” online:
“...The lawyers working on HIGH TIMES’ behalf, were provided with assurances that, if we met all of the demands and criteria set forth by the Mayor’s office, we would be granted a special license to proceed with our event. Instead, on Sunday morning, Amsterdam’s Chief of Police informed us that if we proceeded...a tactical police unit would shut the Cup down and arrest all participants...Frankly, this was an appallingly cynical political move on the part of Mayor: Invite the Cannabis Cup attendees to Amsterdam and have them spend their money, then shut down the Cannabis Cup at the last possible moment….Once again, we are disappointed and outraged at the treatment we have received after a quarter-century of responsible cannabis celebration.”
The average American cannabis user’s reaction reeked of betrayal and was overwhelmingly bitter to say the least: Excerpts from the Cannabist reports’ comment sections included: “Congratulations, Amsterdam! Once the coolest city on the planet, you’ve now made yourself one of the uncoolest.” “F Amsterdam. Can’t believe I just wrote that, but I did...” “Amsterdam LOST it! Because of ignorant politicians.” “The current city government in Amsterdam is not friendly to the pot tourists.”
The Cannapages editors sought answers directly from the Mayor of Amsterdam: What happened? Did the city actually threaten event-goers? Should Americans be afraid to enjoy cannabis while on vacation?
The mayor’s office was surprisingly swift in issuing a statement back to us:
“The permit was denied because the request was filed only two weeks before the start of the event. The standard procedure for the evaluation of a similar request can take up to ten weeks, because many parties have to be consulted – the fire department, the public prosecution service, the health services and the police, to name a few. With regards to the previous experiences with the Cannabis Cup the mayor deemed two weeks insufficient time for proper consideration and denied the request. There were no other restrictions imposed on the Cannabis Cup, and this decision was, as stated before, the result of years of experience with the organisers of the event, repeated warnings issued by the police department of serious violations of the opium act.”
As for the threats against Cup Attendees with arrests:
“...The city of Amsterdam doesn’t go about threatening event-goers. If High Times had found a venue for their event, and upon inspection the police or our municipal enforcers would have found no violations of Dutch law or of the tolerance principle, we would not have had any reason to take any form of action.”
“At previous editions of the Cannabis Cup Expo the Amsterdam Authorities have repeatedly concluded that there have been violations of the Dutch Opium Act; these repeated violations consisted of selling or handing out free samples of soft drugs (illegal in any form, and only allowed in official coffee shops) or of [booth operators] having a supply of soft drugs greater than legally allowed. Also, we concluded that at each edition of the event, agreements between the authorities and the organisers of the event (e.g. the obligation to frisk all visitors of the event at the door for the possession of drugs or weapons) were ignored. After repeated offenses at the last event in Club Roest, last year, the Mayor issued a non compliance penalty to Club Roest, which means that any future law-breaking would result in an immediate fine.”
The issues with High Times are also not new.
“Despite repeated warnings, the situation hasn’t improved in recent years. The City of Amsterdam is a strong advocate of the Dutch drug policy, but has no specific standpoint on drug related events that are held in Amsterdam. Events such as these are judged only in terms of public order and safety. Anyone who wants to organise an event in Amsterdam has to comply with Dutch rules and the law.”
Was the mayor’s office surprised with the media representation and resulting backlash?
“We were surprised by the statements issued. The alleged threat the city of Amsterdam had issued to all event-goers was at the very least a misrepresentation of our standpoint in this matter. It was not the first time that High Times issued a statement about negotiations with the city of Amsterdam that were false. For instance: in the week before the permit was denied, High Times stated on their website that the mayor’s office had already granted a permit.”
Should Americans be concerned about a arrests when using cannabis during visits?
“In Amsterdam the situation is similar to a few years ago. Coffee Shops are still not prosecuted for selling soft drugs to tourists, and although their number is decreasing slowly as the result of these new policies, Amsterdam will still keep over 150 coffee shops, almost twice as much as Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht (the largest cities in Holland after Amsterdam) put together.”
Strangely, Cannapages was the only American media outlet “to contact us with questions with regard to this matter.”
In a response to the mayor, Dan Skye wrote Cannapages that
“High Times has had a long history of respectful participation with Amsterdam authorities. To continue this association with the new government, High Times hired two Amsterdam law firms to guide us through the new rules and regulations. The lawyers were in contact with the Amsterdam city officials months before the event. Based on the city’s recommendations our counsel instructed us to reformat our event. We then restructured our 26-year Cup as a ‘seed’ only event. When our counsel repeated asked for written assurance that we could proceed under these new terms we were told that if we conformed to the rules no ‘permit’ or written assurance would be necessary.”
With such confusion regarding the laws, a spokesperson from the mayor’s office took extra time to outline the city’s official take on cannabis and “drugs” for outsiders:
- A common misunderstanding about drugs in the Netherlands is that drugs are legal. Drugs are not legal. The Public Justice department has issued guidelines which have to be met in order to avoid prosecution.
- Law enforcement policy gives priority to large scale trafficking of all kinds of drugs (hard drugs as well as soft drugs) and dealing in hard drugs, but not to possession of less than 0.5 grams hard drugs. Although it is a serious offence, it has no priority in law enforcement policy. Also the possession of less than 30 grams cannabis (which is about 5 plants) is given no enforcement priority.
- In 1995 an official coffee shop list was created. The number of coffee shops was frozen. And coffee shops became a separate branch of the hospitality business.
- Only residents of the Netherlands are permitted to visit coffee shops and purchase cannabis there. However, municipalities have the freedom to decide whether or not to enforce this rule, so it is their local discretion. This is one of the recent changes in policy mentioned above.
This last rule is typically enforced in the border regions of the Netherlands, because of the fact that cannabis isn’t tolerated in Germany nor in Belgium and a lot of drug tourism is causing nuisance in the border cities.
- In 1999 there were 288 coffee shops in Amsterdam (a third of the national number) In 2012 the number had decreased to 208. In 2016 the number of permits will most likely stabilize on around 150 shops. The aim is to keep as many coffee shops as are needed to meet local demand and have a manageable coffee shop system where well screened staff can sell soft drugs only to adults, and can also give advice and assistance when needed.
Will there be a Amsterdam Cup in the coming year? Speculation is that another Euro-city will host next year, while some warn that similar restrictions will be present at all future Cup events, perhaps even in the world’s new beacon of freedom, the state of Colorado.