The Irony of Holland's Smoking Ban: You can Still Have Your Joint, but Only if it's Pure

By Frederik Hartig

In July, the Dutch government will introduce a nationwide smoking ban in bars, cafes and restaurants, aimed at protecting workers. But it will also make life a lot harder for the country's infamous coffee shops, where customers will only be allowed to smoke pure cannabis.

De Tweede Kamer is located on a small side street in Amsterdam, not far from the flower market. A painting of Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard hangs on the wall, and next to it, a little bit higher, there's one of Queen Wilhelmina. White ornaments rise up the wall like smoke rings around the portraits. The coffee shop opened in 1985, and has since become an institution in the Dutch capital, a kind of art museum for the residents of Amsterdam, owner Paul Wilhelm proudly says.

But Wilhelm is worried about his company's future. On July 1, a smoking ban will come into force in Dutch restaurants, bars and cafes. The ban will also apply to the country's more than 700 coffee shops, which are infamous worldwide for selling soft drugs.

"Coffee shops will be treated in the same manner as other catering businesses," Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told public broadcaster NOS after the government issued its decision on Friday. "It would have been wrong to move towards a smoke-free catering industry and then make an exception for coffee shops. People would not have understood that."

The chances of getting an exemption are limited, says Mark Jacobsen of BCD, a nationwide association of coffee shop owners that has been fighting to get special provisions for the cafes.

Jacobsen argues that it's absurd that the law is being applied to coffee shops. "In a cafe," he said, "you come to drink something. In a restaurant you come to eat. But when you come to a coffee shop, you come to smoke, so smoking has to be allowed in a coffee shop."

But Dutch Health Minister Ab Klink has no plans to make any exceptions. Coffee shop employees, he argues, also have the right to protection from tobacco smoke.

But Wilhelm claims it's a specious argument. After all, people who apply for jobs in a coffee shop know that smoking is the company's core business. "If the boys are old enough to be sent to Afghanistan, then you can't tell me that people want to protect them from smoke in the workplace. They're old enough to decide on their own. They can vote, they can go to war -- but now they won't even be allowed to make this decision?"

Perversely, the law, intended to protect workers from smoke, only applies to tobacco. In the Netherlands, that has resulted in a rather bizarre result: Smoking pot or hashish in coffee shops will remain legal; it just can't be mixed with tobacco. If someone wants to roll their joint with tobacco, then they have to smoke it outside. Wilhelm can only shake his head in disbelief. "That sounds a bit to me like going into a cafe and being able to buy a beer without being able to drink it there. But the cafe still lets you drink whiskey, rum and vodka."

Besides, it will be difficult to monitor whether someone has secretly rolled his joint with tobacco or not. Mark Jacobson doubts that Dutch officials will begin policing the ban immediately when it goes into effect in July. "We'll just have to see how strictly they enforce it," he says.

Under the new provision, he explains, "If an official comes into a coffee shop and sees someone smoking a joint, he must confiscate it and send it to a lab to test whether it contains tobacco. It's such an arduous procedure that it is going to create numerous problems. I don't think they will apply it very strictly during the first year."

Jacobsen feels the world has been turned on its head in Holland. "In every other country they do just the opposite -- there they check whether there is cannabis inside," he says with a laugh.

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