Introduction of ‘Weed Card’ in The Netherlands

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May 2, 2012

What’s going on?

The coalition government in the Netherlands has a legislative programme that includes making all of the country’s coffeeshops private clubs accessible only to customers issued with a club card. In the Netherlands ‘coffeeshop’ is a euphemism for establishments where the sale of cannabis to the public for personal consumption is tolerated by the local authorities. The membership cards would be obtainable only by residents of the Netherlands aged 18 or older. Foreign tourists would no longer be allowed into Dutch coffee shops if the scheme becomes law. The government hopes the scheme – known as the ‘wietpas’ or ‘weed card’ - will reduce the use of soft drugs by young people and cut crime and disturbances in the vicinity of coffeeshops. Another aim of the government is to put an end to ‘drugs tourism’ in the Netherlands, especially in the southern provinces (Limburg, North Brabant and Zeeland). 

What’s the status of the plan?

In the three southern provinces (Limburg, North Brabant and Zeeland) the introduction of the weed card took place on the 1st of May 2012. People without a weed card are no longer welcome in the coffee shops here. The other parts of the country are likely to introduce the card in 2013. There is considerable opposition to the introduction of this measure in Amsterdam and other major cities. 

What is Dutch policy on drugs?

Unlike numerous other countries within and outside Europe, the Netherlands operates a policy of tolerating soft drugs like cannabis. Under this policy it is not prohibited to use soft drugs. Their use is allowed or tolerated under controlled conditions. All acts involving cannabis except its use are punishable. The minimum age for using soft drugs is 18. There are heavy penalties for supplying soft drugs to minors.

The way the law stands at present the coffeeshops are permitted to sell soft drugs subject to certain conditions. Although the sale of soft drugs is punishable by law, the sale of small quantities for personal use in a coffeeshop is not subject to prosecution. However, the coffeeshops must comply with the following conditions:

  • not more than 5 grams per person per day may be sold;
  • hard drugs must not be sold;
  • there must be no sales to minors and minors must not be allowed into a coffeeshop;
  • no alcohol may be served on the premises;
  • there must be no advertising of drugs;
  • there must be no disturbances in the vicinity;
  • the stock must not exceed 500 grams.

Soft drugs & tourism 

Dutch border cities like Maastricht (Limburg), Venlo (Limburg), Bergen op Zoom (North Brabant) and Roosendaal (North Brabant) are popular among German, Belgian and French visitors who come briefly to the Netherlands to buy soft drugs. These cities close to the national frontiers have become destinations for 'drugs tourism' and many local officials and residents would like to see the introduction of the weed card. The border areas are likely to be the first places in the Netherlands to introduce the card if the government’s plan goes ahead. We know that some tourists who visit the capital Amsterdam go to coffeeshops during their stays (see table). Coffeeshops are known to be a popular 'attraction' for Spanish, Italian and North American visitors. For a very small proportion of these visitors a visit to a coffeeshop is the most important activity during their stay.

Coffeeshops are part of Amsterdam's 'liberal' image. Some major cities, including Amsterdam, anticipate problems if the card is introduced in their jurisdiction. They doubt whether the card will solve the crime problem and whether there is sufficient manpower to enforce such a law in the coffeeshops. 

Coffeeshop visits by country (rounded figures)
Visited coffeeshop Visit to coffeeshop most important activity
Country of origin % visit Number in 2012 % for whom main reason Number in 2010
Germany 10 290,000 0.0 -
United Kingdom 13 200,000 1.5 25,000
Belgium 5 65,000 0.6 10,000
France 9 60,000 1.7 10,000
Italy 19 85,000 2.2 10,000
Spain 30 35,000 2.2 -
Scandinavia 10 35,000 0.4 10,000
Other Europe 25 305,000 0.8 10,000
United States 19 175,000 8.3 75,000
Other intercontinental 15 180,000 0.5 5,000
Total 14 1,515,000 1.4 150,000

 Source: Inbound Tourism Survey 2010

How will the card affect tourism?

There are no hard figures to show how many tourists visit Amsterdam for the principal purpose of soft drugs. This makes it difficult to say how the possible introduction of the weed card will affect inbound tourism. However, the figures quoted above do indicate that many foreign tourists include a visit to a coffeeshop in their stay. Overall the percentage of surveyed guests for whom a visit to a coffeeshop was the most important activity is low. The outlier is North America where the proportion was found to be about 8%. The figures indicate that a decision to introduce the weed card might result in fewer foreign tourists choosing Amsterdam or the Netherlands as a destination for a stay. On the other hand, a less liberal policy might actually attract new tourists among people who currently feel less inclined to visit Amsterdam or the Netherlands precisely because of the liberal image. If the card is introduced, NBTC will monitor its impact in association with relevant stakeholders. NBTC would greatly regret introduction of the card resulting in fewer tourists visiting the Netherlands.