Amsterdam: Hold the Tobacco, Pass the Joint

Coffee shop owners criticize "absurd decision" to ban tobacco smoking.

July 1, 2008 — -- A Dutch ban on cigarette smoking in public places takes effect today, but people still will be able to light up in the country's cafes — as long as they are smoking pot.

The nationwide tobacco ban is intended to protect workers from secondhand smoke in bars, cafes and restaurants.

Even the country's 700-plus coffee shops, where marijuana smoking is tolerated, will be subject to the no-tobacco rule.

"It would have been wrong to move towards a smoke-free catering industry and then make an exception for coffee shops," Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told Dutch TV station NOS. "People would not have understood that."

So, does that mean you can still sit in a cafe and smoke a joint?

"In theory, yes," Dutch Health Minister Ab Klink told lawmakers earlier this year. "Smoking can continue at the shops for as long as no tobacco is in the mix."

He added, "Those who prefer to accent their marijuana high with a bit of tobacco as well will have to go outside or to separate tobacco-smoking rooms. The alternative will be going-tobacco free, as the ban seeks, by smoking marijuana alone."

Coffee shop owners have been unsuccessful arguing against the no-tobacco ban, trying desperately to get special provisions approved. They will be held responsible and fined if a customer is caught smoking a tobacco-based joint.

De Tweede Kamer, a small, well-known coffee shop in the heart of Amsterdam, has been in business for more than 24 years and is frequented on most days by 250 to 300 customers.

Jason den Enting, the manager, told ABC News in a telephone interview, "This is absurd. Our customers come here to socialize and smoke. Smoking has to be allowed in a coffee shop, it's a cultural thing."

He explains that customers must be 18 years old, adding, "At age 18, people are old enough to vote and they are mature enough to go to war for our country, so why are they not deemed mature enough to decide themselves whether or not they want to smoke?"

"The other side of the coin are the staffers, working at the cafes, [who] are meant to be protected from secondhand smoke," he said. "But that point is moot; it is entirely up to the employee whether he wants to work at a coffee shop."

Coffee Shop Culture in Amsterdam

Each year some 4.2 million tourists from all over the world visit Amsterdam.

While most of them come here for the well-known tourist attractions — the canals, the museums, the historic buildings — others come to enjoy the country's relatively hassle-free drug policy, which has led to a division in the eyes of the law between "hard" drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, and "soft" drugs, like cannabis.

Technically, cannabis is an illegal substance. However, a policy of tolerance allows customers to have a joint at specially licensed cafes called coffee shops, so long as the amount sold to one person per day is limited to 5 grams. Coffee shops are allowed to stock a maximum of 500 grams.

The coffee shops have to adhere to strict criteria. They must be licensed, and they are prohibited from selling soft drugs to minors under 18. Advertising or promotion of drugs is strictly banned.

Now, the license can be confiscated if the owner is found not to adhere to the new no-tobacco rule.

In April 2007, coffee shops were forced to choose between serving alcohol and cannabis. The vast majority opted to serve cannabis.

Cannabis is usually mixed with tobacco and rolled in a joint, but it can be smoked in a pipe or it can also be consumed as a tea or in cake form.

Is Business Expected to Plummet?

Jason den Enting has been managing the Tweede Kamer for more than six years without any problems.

He said that his European customers are the ones to be most affected by the new rule.

"Our guests from America are usually the ones to smoke marijuana pure or in a pipe. They're more used to that than our clients from here. Our local patrons traditionally prefer their cannabis joints mixed with tobacco, because it isn't that strong then."

Asked whether he expects business to plummet, den Enting said, "I don't think so, but it might be less fun in the future.

"So far," he said, "we're taking pride in providing a convivial atmosphere, We don't want to become a drug takeaway. Our guests like to come here for the social contacts, chatting with each other, reading newspapers or talking about politics.

"Now," he said, "that atmosphere is likely to be destroyed by an absurd decision."