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Why Amsterdam’s coffee shops are closing

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On December 31st the world’s oldest coffee shop, Mellow Yellow, in Amsterdam, was forced to roll down its bright yellow shutters one last time, reported The Economist.

Over the past half-century, many a foreigner has smoked their first spliff at this cosy cafe, which sat perfectly on the route between two tourist favourites, the Heineken Brewery and Rembrandt Square. Mellow Yellow is the latest in a string of Amsterdam coffee-shop closures, a development that is worrying health workers, law enforcement officials and potheads equally because it may push drugs back onto the street. The number of coffee shops in the Dutch capital has fallen by half since 1995, from 350 to just 167. Why are so many Amsterdam coffee shops closing?

To most outsiders, the Netherlands is synonymous with liberal, legalised vice, with Amsterdam the main port of call. Roughly one in four tourists to Amsterdam intends to visit a coffee shop, according to the city’s tourism bureau (in 2016 Amsterdam received 17m tourists, up from 12m in 2012). Holland’s soft drug policy has always been one of “tolerating” rather than legalising.

As Vincent explains in “Pulp Fiction”, “It’s legal to buy it, it’s legal to own it and if you’re the proprietor of a hash bar, it’s legal to sell it.” Central to making this construction work is a system of small, tightly regulated coffee shops, where people can legally buy and smoke cannabis—and which the authorities can keep an eye on. Few officials in liberal Amsterdam want to get rid of coffee shops altogether; they are thought to help keep soft drugs out of the criminal circuit. But in more conservative parts of the country, including the political capital, The Hague, resistance to the policy of looking the other way has grown.

Dutch governments have been clamping down on coffee shops by banning those in border cities from serving tourists, and forcing the closure of establishments near schools. A hairdressing school 230 meters down the road was the proximate cause for Mellow Yellow blazing out; a new rule states that they must be at least 250 meters apart. City officials openly question the effectiveness of this policy, but claim it placates The Hague and that it is the “lesser of two evils” (in that at least they can still serve tourists).

Given the density with which Amsterdammers live on top of each other, nearly 20 coffee shops have had to close due to the proximity rule. Another 30 were stubbed out as part of an effort to clean up the seediest parts of the red light district a few years ago. Around 150 prostitute windows were closed as part of the same scheme. But the largest chunk of coffee shops went out of business either because they ran into trouble with law enforcement (there have been several shootings recently) or because they couldn’t hack it financially. A “no growth” policy means coffee shops are petering because no licenses are being handed out for new ones to replace those that have closed.

Amsterdam’s remaining coffee shops must therefore deal with the high demand. It is a mixed blessing. Some of the busiest ones have shifted from cosy cafes to take-away counters. This makes it much harder to keep an eye on users. Staff members often no longer have time to offer friendly advice, says Floor van Bakkum of Jellinek, an addiction help centre. A second worry is that street dealers might rush in to fill the gap left by coffee shops.

A report by the Bonger Instituut, a criminology think-tank named after a professor at the University of Amsterdam, is blunt: it blames both the growth in tourism and the closures of coffee shops in the city centre for the increase in street dealers. Other types of crime could also rise. Coffee shops are only allowed to hold 500 grams of the green stuff at any one time; some now need to re-stock several times a day to keep up with demand. This makes their couriers more vulnerable to robberies. It could also push proprietors to turn to criminals for their increased supply needs. Back in the old days they could count on a few friends with plants on their balconies. But as fewer coffee shops are expected to cater to ever larger groups of stoners, that approach could leave them out of joint.

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