Reader question: the politics of coffeeshops (and prostitution)

I recently got a mail from a reader who asked an interesting question. He also made a donation to this site as an incentive for me to write a piece about it.

Until I received that mail I didn’t know I did such things, but live and learn.

Raphael’s question is:

How is it that, in matters of sex and drugs, the Netherlands got such a reputation as being one of the most culturally liberal countries in the world in the last few decades of the 20th century? That is not what you would expect from a country where politics used to be dominated by men like Abraham Kuyper. Yes, you mention that things changed a lot in the 1960s and 1970s, but they did that in a lot of other countries, too.

OK, fair question. Let’s attempt to answer it. For me, the explanation goes something like this:

Although the christian parties didn’t like drugs and prostitution, they were in a curious position on these matters in the sixties. Left-wing PvdA was in favour of liberalising sex and drugs, but so was right-wing VVD, which is a liberal party, and thus, from time to time, doesn’t like telling people what not to do. It was the christian parties themselves that were not in tune with the changing times.

If the christian parties would oppose these policies tooth and nail, the danger was that PvdA and VVD could join up to pass a law — and once PvdA and VVD collaborated on one issue, they might do so again on other issues and maybe conclude they didn’t need the christians at all. This was a clear danger to the christian position in the centre of Dutch politics. Better to give in on points where PvdA and VVD agreed than to lose power entirely.

That, I think, is the fundamental political reason why the christian parties gave in on these issues.

In addition, the Dutch attitude to things like sex and drugs is always a balance between high principles and practicality, between the protestant preacher and the liberal merchant. Sure, prostitution and drugs are deplorable. But it’s also there, and denying that might cause more problems than it solves. Besides, it costs money, both in repression costs and in unpaid taxes on sex and drugs. Because hey, coffeeshops and prostitutes pay (some) taxes now.

Below is a quick overview of sex and drugs since the sixties. I grew up in Amsterdam, so I’ll mostly concentrate on the capital. To me coffeeshops and the red light area are just things that are there, if you know what I mean — though I’m glad the heroin junkies are gone. I rarely felt the need to explain such obvious features of Amsterdam life, so I may be a bit vague from time to time. Also, I concentrate on drugs, because I know very little about prostitution.


In the past, the Dutch state made quite a bit of money from drugs. Opium and cocoa were grown in the colonies and exported to the motherland. In the early 20th century there was a cocaine factory in Amsterdam.

Drug laws became stricter after the international treaties that sought (and failed) to limit access to and us of drugs. The loss of the Dutch East Indies severely hampered supply, and during the fifties and early sixties the situation did not differ much from other countries.

During the sixties several types of drugs, notably hashish and weed, became popular among hippies. Lawmakers and police didn’t do an awful lot against it, partly for practical reasons (e.g. lack of manpower), partly because it was sort-of government policy to allow the youth to experiment, especially during the De Jong government (1967-1971). Note that this government was an old-fashioned coalition of the three christian parties with the VVD headed by a former navy officer. Nothing left-wing here. The Dutch drug policy has always been supported by both left and right, with only the small christian parties objecting seriously.

The 1976 law

Around 1970 a weekly radio programme gave price information about the various types of hashish and weed. This information was collated and presented by Koos Zwart, whose mother was Irene Vorrink (PvdA), minister of Health in the Den Uyl government (1973-1977). Her portfolio included the health consequences of drug use.

The Den Uyl government decided that, although it wasn’t against drug use per se, excesses had to be curbed. This led to the all-important revision of the Opium Law of 1976. From then on a distinction was made between soft drugs (hashish and weed) and hard drugs (anything else). The sale (though not the production or import!) of soft drugs in coffeeshops was to be tolerated (though not legalised!), and valuable police time was to be spent exclusively on hard drugs.

This law is still the cornerstone of Dutch drugs practice. I once wrote a piece about coffeeshops where you can find more information. During the research for this piece I also found a page with decent advice for foreigners. Read it if you ever plan on visiting Amsterdam coffeeshops without drinking coffee.

In addition to prime minister Den Uyl and health minister Vorrink, the driving force behind this law was justice minister Van Agt (KVP, later CDA), who succeeded Den Uyl as prime minister and what thus able to continue his policies. To all appearances Van Agt believed in what he was doing. In 2018 he not only accepted the Koos Zwart Award (named after the minister’s son) for his efforts for legalising and normalising soft drugs, he even smoked his very first joint at age 86 — or so it was said. Van Agt clearly sees this law as one of his core achievements, even though he is a conservative at heart.

I heard several times that after this law marihuana consumption dropped by about a third. I cannot find a source now, though, so I’ll leave it at this note.

Recent initiatives

In 2017-7 government tried to restrict coffeeshops to selling to locals. This was mostly due to problems with drug runners and tourists in the smaller towns along the Belgian and German borders, and not so much in Amsterdam or the other cities. My earlier piece contains a few details. Meanwhile this initiative has been discontinued.

Currently a test is being started where a few farmers and companies are allowed to grow weed for sale in coffeeshops. The idea is that this system would replace the current smuggling-based one. The problem is that, in order to participate in this test, all coffeeshops in a city have to buy their weed from these legal suppliers. To many coffeeshop owners this does not make sense, since they cannot assume the new system will continue, while they’re forced to part ways with their current suppliers. That’s why Amsterdam, in particular, is not participating. Also, the plan would decrease diversity since we’d only have Dutch-grown weed for sale, while right now Moroccan hasish and even foreign weed is available. We’ll see what happens next.

Heroin junkies

Heroin consumption rose dramatically during the seventies, to the point where Amsterdam became the heroin capital of the word. (There’ a reason Chet Baker died here.) At first the junkies were Dutch, but by the mid eighties, when I became aware of such things myself, the new influx of junkies was mostly foreign, to the extent where just about everyone in Europe and beyond who wanted a dirty high came here and cluttered the streets, and desperate pleas for help by concerned German, French or other parents who wanted to find their child became a staple of life.

A few small parts of the old city centre were given over to drug users, though the situation was not actively dangerous. It was quite possible to walk through these areas unscathed, I’ve done so myself on many occasions. If you know San Francisco you can compare it to the Tenderloin, though smaller. Criminality was mostly restricted to the stealing of car radios and bikes (buying your bike “from the junkie” was still common in my student years in the early nineties). This was annoying but hardly dangerous. The harsher criminality around the import of drugs was more hidden in those days, and rarely reached regular people.

As a defensive measure we children learned to look (down) on heroin junkies with a mix of pity and contempt. “Hey, if you want to be like that, use heroin!” It worked — although I know of plenty of drug-related problems with people of my generation, heroin plays no role.

During these days the city of Amsterdam mostly reacted with practical measures, from the principle that drug use is not a criminal activity in itself, and junkies should be helped. A methadon programme was set up (I still remember the converted buses they handed it out from, with lines of junkies waiting their turn). Cleanliness was encouraged, and for that reasons there were a few safe spaces where junkies could actually inject their heroin without fear and with clean needles.

The inflection point was reached somewhere in the late eighties and early nineties. Heroin ceased to be a fashionable drug, to be replaced by coke and XTC. Also, the city slowly reclaimed the most-affected parts of town by urban renewal projects. Nowadays there are probably a few old-time junkies left, but about ten years ago I read that their average age was over forty, so nowadays it’ll be over fifty.


When the protestants came to power in the late 19th century they wanted to prohibit prostitution, which is clearly a sin. Initially this was mostly a local affair, with cities tolerating or abolishing brothels as they saw fit. In 1911 the christian Heemskerk government fully abolished brothels (though not prostitution). The fact that “cigar shops” and “massage parlours” sprang up immediately tells you everything about the efficacy of this bit of legislation. Also, the law was hard to work with. (Don’t ask me for details; I don’t know.)

I vaguely remember being confused when I first heard about the brothel ban, because I had walked through the red light district many many times (a friend of mine lived close by, and I also was a regular in a pub not that far away). If brothels were not allowed, nobody had bothered to inform the people over there. The city of Amsterdam ignored the laws structurally here, probably arguing that it was better to keep prostitution at least partly in the legal, above-board world so as to avoid the worst excesses of forced sex slavery and human trafficking. It was not alone in this regard.

It should be noted that the hard-core drug neighbourhoods were quite close to the red light area as well. Thus sin was concentrated in a small part of town, and people could avoid it or look for it, as they saw fit.

From 1982 on calls were made to repeal the brothel ban. It even led to a formal repeal in 1987, but justice minister Hirsch Ballin (CDA) refused to execute it due to moral qualms, and back in those days the political situation apparently didn’t allow parliament, the rest of government, or the CDA party leadership to overrule him. (To be honest I remember that Hirsch Ballin did so, but not the political details). Finally, the Purple government repealed the ban in 2000.

Sex- and drugs-related criminality

Back in the seventies and eighties prostitution and drugs were mostly run by native white Dutch. This started to change in the nineties, when former Yugoslavians took over (and many had fought in their wars; they were not nice people). Still later, Moroccan gangs began to rise. Dutch Moroccans disproportionately have their roots in the Rif mountains, whose main export product is hashish. So that made sense. It also made sense that they grabbed other markets, thougn it seems they’re not much into prostitution.

From 2012 on a vicious internecine war between Moroccan gangs led to various liquidations — unfortunately sometimes also of innocent bystanders, or of people who resembled the actual targets. This war spread to Morocco (where one stupid hitman actually killed the son of a member of the Moroccan supreme court). Currently police is trying to get a grip on this situation.

Another serious problem is that nowadays the Netherlands appear to take an important place in the production and distribution of synthetic drugs. Distribution is easy: the port of Rotterdam, by far the largest port outside the Far East, is close by. Production seems to be mostly concentrted on outlying farms especially in the southern province of Brabant, and not in the cities. This, far more than the coffeeshops, is the biggest drug problem we currently have.

What’s next?

The legalisation of soft drugs in other countries didn’t alter Dutch drug policies noticeably. The careful compromise of 1976 cannot be changed without upsetting either the left or the right, and they need each other in government. Doing nothing is by far the safest political choice.

Still, the all-around copying taking place around the world indicates that drugs-wise we have been on the right track since 1976. ASs to prostituion, it is a fact of life, and we feel it’s better to keep it out in the open than force it into illegality, which will quite likely be much worse for the prostitutes. (Not saying the current situation is perfect, but full illegality is definitely worse.)

Also, a broad political coalition has coalesced around these issues, and an outright ban on coffeeshops or prostitution is not a vote-winning standpoint, except on the small christian right.

I did a quick survey of the 2017 party drugs standpoints. I do not believe any party has significantly changed its approach.

In addition, the D66, PvdA, and VVD programmes explictly mention the legal growing test. Thus it will likely continue for a while.

Since every Dutch coalition contains exactly two of PvdA, CDA, and VVD, the current situation is unlikely to change.

<— Party profiles — SP | Party profiles — FvD —>

This is the political blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer, in Amsterdam. It’s a hobby blog where he follows Dutch politics for the benefit of those twelve foreigners that are interested in such matters, as well as his Dutch readers.

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