Smoke signals: will public cannabis ban deter nuisance tourism?Senay Boztas
It is busy on a sunny Thursday afternoon in Amsterdam’s red light district, and two young Dutch women are talking anxiously. “Where are you allowed to smoke now? In the coffee shops? How does it work?”
Tourists cast interested looks at new posters up and down the ancient canals of De Wallen, which used to be the site of the old city walls. “No smoking cannabis in public: €100 fine” they say in English and Dutch.
The first day of a new policy to reduce nuisance in Amsterdam’s red light district met mixed feelings on the streets: tourists were happy to be told about it, looked carefully at the map of streets, and didn’t seem to mind being restricted to smoking in private or in “coffee shops” where cannabis is sold.
But some businesses were furious. Standing outside on the last night of freedom on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, some showed letters of protest to Amsterdam council. “Tell tourists we are open!” said one, who refused to give his name.
After years of complaints that Amsterdam’s oldest neighbourhood has become unliveable – and sometimes dangerously busy – due to 18 million tourists a year, the city has acted. A ban on smoking weed in public in the city centre is one of a number of policies intended to crack down on nuisance.
Opening times for window brothels have been pulled back from 6am to 3am, bars must close at 2am (and have a lock-in from 1am), there’s a weekend alcohol sale ban in local shops, and a “stay away” campaign – aimed first at nuisance Brits.
Lian Heinhuis, head of the local PvdA labour party and spokesperson on the inner city told Dutch News all of the political parties agreed: Amsterdam’s freedom was not there to be exploited by profit-seeking businesses or party-seeking tourists at the expense of Amsterdammers themselves. “This is not an amusement park, but it has become one in the Wallen,” she said.
She and city executives stress that no single measure will solve the problem: they are all intended to work together to send an important signal that tourists who think anything goes should go – elsewhere.
Some feel that more is needed. Local resident and member of the Stop de Gekte (stop the madness) group Els Iping is happy that the council is taking measures. “The area could be bigger: all parts of the centre have trouble with this and they have limited it to a small part,” she said. “But the way the council deals with the neighbourhood has changed to recognise that it has become unliveable. We are happy they are trying to create change. But as long as a naked woman is standing behind a window, it’s difficult to leave that old image behind, so we say: bring prostitution inside too.”
Others believe that Amsterdam should enforce a national law to ban non-residents from coffee shops entirely. Robbert Overmeer, chairman of the Biz Utrechtsestraat business owners group, said this would have more of an impact.
“The public smoking ban is a good step, but I’d say do it in the whole centre,” he added. “And you also need to enforce it. But it is nevertheless a signal to visitors that you can’t do anything you like in Amsterdam: that is clear.”
Others were more critical. Hein Schafrat, spokesman for the PCN group of cannabis business owners, doubted that the policy would be effective. “There are too many tourists, sometimes it’s really crazy and it’s difficult for the police to keep an eye on it all,” he said. “The trouble is that people keep on using cannabis anyway. If they close 50 shops, existing shops are twice as busy. People who use alcohol also give a different pressure on society. There’s a lot of trouble with drunken people, not so much with those who smoke cannabis.”
In the red light district, Brits were notably thin on the ground and other tourists seemed philosophical about the public smoking ban. “Those parts of the red light district are things that draw people here,” said Caleb Troy, 20, an American studying in Germany. “It might hurt people coming here but be good for the locals.”
Ruben Gonzalez, 39, took a careful note of the banned streets when he saw the map. “I don’t know what the problem is with smoking,” he said mildly, “but in Spain it is prohibited. I’m from Barcelona and I think the tourists are worse than here.”
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