AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands, Nov. 6, 2008 -- While businesses all around the world are struggling in these difficult times, it's boom time for one type of establishment in Amsterdam.
The coffee shops, for which the city has become famous, are full and doing brisk trade in carry-out cannabis and, for the more indulgent, "smoke-in" spliffs.
"Business is good. The tougher the economical situation is, the more we're selling, because more people need to relax from stressful situations," said Co, a manager at Amsterdam's Abraxas coffee shop, who did not want his full name revealed.
There is only one major restraint for the passing puffer: The joint has to be pure. The Netherlands passed a tobacco-smoking ban July 1, putting it in line with many other European countries.
But Holland's stance on cannabis, marijuana and the like is unique: Coffee shops are allowed to possess up to half a kilo of the so-called soft drugs.
They can legally sell 5 grams per customer -- law enforcement looks the other way as long as the coffee shops keep to these rules.
There are about 780 such coffee shops all over the country, almost 200 in Amsterdam, and despite the global credit crisis, people are flocking to them from far and wide to "chill out."
"People are much more bothered by the nonsmoking ban, which was forced on us last summer, than they are by the financial crisis, which has hit Holland, too," Co said.
"After the smoking ban was imposed we've seen a drop in sales of drinks and beverages, because the socializing factor is gone. More and more customers buy the drugs and take them home rather than staying at the coffee shop and have a smoke over a drink."
"I believe people will save on big things, like a new car or a new TV set, but they won't save on soft drugs."
According to Co, "In times of crisis, you treat yourself to small luxuries."
It's an argument that Max Daniel, head of the Dutch government agency in charge of cracking down on cannabis, says is true. "The tougher the times, the more the drug business is thriving."
Demand for Soft Drugs
He said during an interview with ABC News.com, "There are approximately 400,000 people in the Netherlands consuming soft drugs."
"We know that at least 80 percent of Dutch cannabis production is for export and only 20 percent stay in the country," he said. "If it was only those 20 percent, the issue would be entirely manageable."
Daniel explained that last year the illegal cannabis trade reached an estimated $3 billion with most demand coming from Great Britain, France, Belgium and Germany but also from Scandinavian countries, where demand is on the rise.
He complains that the Dutch government has not paid enough attention to the growing "gray area" that has grown tremendously and is funding organized crime.
Daniel went further. "I think that the exorbitant cannabis business is the reason behind most major crimes, such as murder, arms trafficking and money laundering."
"We still have the image of people growing a few cannabis plants in the attic but what we're really seeing is that organized criminals have long since taken over and they have turned this into big business," he said in the interview.
"If only we would successfully eliminate the export and the organized crime that comes with it, the issue would become manageable and we would not have anything against the coffee shops."
But the gravity of Daniel's argument has not yet trickled down to the shops.
Co, the manager at Abraxas, says his customers just want to have a good time. "They're doing no harm, they just want to enjoy a good smoke and good company."