There are many clichés about the Netherlands: tulips, windmills, cheese, the red light district in Amsterdam and its liberal drug laws. Like all clichés, they are far from accurate and nobody takes them very seriously. The Dutch drug laws, however, are a special case. While one can easily laugh about any cliché, many Dutch people seem to be quite annoyed about being associated with cannabis. It took me quite a while to understand this.
The policy of tolerance was originally adopted to separate soft drugs from hard drugs. Initially, it was a success, but since the operation of coffee shops is not entirely legal, they’ve always remained a somewhat shady business. Many foreigners, however, are not aware of this. In the lore of recreational drug users throughout the world, the Netherlands is The Promised Land.
When I came to Maastricht for the first time, though, I noticed that the people hanging out in the coffee shops are mostly French, Belgians and Germans. At private parties it's a similar picture; quite a few foreign students are enjoying their new freedom, while many of the Dutch simply stick to their beer. I was puzzled, so I questioned my Dutch friends. The reactions were largely similar: most didn't like the coffee shops, the tourists and simply didn't bother – they think it's kind of lame and uncool to smoke weed. I guess if it's readily available, it's just not as interesting. Also, you don't need to live long in Maastricht to become annoyed by tourists looking for the next coffee shop in the middle of the night.
This is not just a personal observation of mine. A recent study by the European Union showed that the use of cannabis among Dutch students is only slightly above average compared to other countries. In many countries cannabis consumption among students is much more common than in the Netherlands. Strangely enough, the countries with the strictest laws and regulations, like France, Spain, the UK and also the US, are all among the countries with the largest numbers of users. Might the temptation of the forbidden fruit be one of these few clichés that actually are true?
In the last couple of years, the Dutch public has become more and more annoyed by drug tourism and increasing numbers of cities are deciding to close down their coffee shops. They’re enforcing stricter regulations against soft drugs and conservative politicians want to abolish the policy of tolerance completely. I'm not sure, however, whether that wouldn't be counter-productive. If cannabis became illegal, it would certainly become more interesting for youngsters, and might eventually even become cool again – even in the Netherlands.
Aretz (30), who grew up in Germany, is a former UCM student and currently preparing for a year of travelling through Canada