Should Canada follow the Netherlands' lead and create 'coffeeshops' for smoking weed?

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From the outside, Boerejongens (“Farmer Boys” in Dutch) looks like an old-style apothecary. The only clue of what it might be is a small sticker on the door reading “coffeeshop.”

Inside, there is a wine-bar vibe – polished marble floors and counters, and gold fixtures, and only the slightest hint of background music.

At the counter you are greeted by a cannabis sommelier, dressed sharply in a crisp white shirt, bow tie, suspenders, dress pants and shiny shoes.

On the touch screen, you can scroll through the offerings on the menu – cannabis, hashish and mooncakes (baked goods made with cannabis). You can also sniff samples.

“My role is to guide customers in the right direction, to help them make the choices that are right for them,” says Damien Loe, the store’s manager.

With 20 years’ experience – “personal and professional,” he says with a smile – he speaks knowledgeably about the relative merits of Sativa strains, a sweet mild smoke that leaves people feeling high and creative, and Indica strains, a more pungent smoke that leaves users feeling stoned and relaxed.

Luke, 28 years old from London, smokes cannabis in a coffee shop on November 1, 2012 in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands. Coffee shops in the Dutch captial will remain open to tourists after its mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, decided that tourists will not be banned from the 220 coffee shops in Amsterdam where marijuana and hashish are openly sold and consumed.

Mr. Loe patiently guides clients through the menu, from “white choco guava haze” (a high-end product that sells for €18 per gram) to “Kabouter amnesia” (a more pedestrian €6.50 per gram), to the Spacetrip Brownie, which contains 0.33 grams of “fine weed.”

Amsterdam is the stoner capital of the world. It is estimated that as many as one in three visitors to the Dutch capital will visit a coffeeshop to purchase pot or hash.

Yet, cannabis is not legal in the Netherlands, as it soon will be in Canada.

The Dutch approach is remarkable for its hazy ambiguity: the guiding philosophy is tolerance, not legalization.

Possession of up to five grams is tolerated (meaning you won’t be prosecuted). You can smoke legally in coffeeshops, but not really anywhere else, though it is commonplace. Shops that sell cannabis cannot sell alcohol or tobacco. And while coffeeshops are licensed to sell cannabis, they aren’t legally allowed to purchase it, so the supply comes from the black market.

“It’s a weird system and increasingly being questioned,” says Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium in London.

Louis, right, 22 years old from Manchester, England, smokes cannabis in a coffee shop with his friend Josh, 21 years old, on November 1, 2012 in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands.

At the same time, she notes that the Dutch approach seems to work – at least on the ground. “If you’ve been to Amsterdam, you will know it’s one of the most well-organized, orderly cities in the world. Cannabis is not creating a public nuisance – certainly not in a way that alcohol creates a nuisance in most cities.”

What remains to be seen, Ms. Fordham says, is whether Canada’s more formal, corporate approach will be better, from a legal and public-health perspective.

The principal distinction between Canada and the Netherlands is that Canada will regulate not only retail sales, but suppliers.

As a result, Canada is experiencing a “green rush,” with cannabis company stocks soaring. Governments will collect far more taxes on pot in Canada than they do in the Netherlands. Yet, cannabis prices will be markedly lower.

Two customers from Romania inspect a container of cannabis before making a purchase at the 420 Cafe in Amsterdam, March 16, 2012.

There are 166 coffeeshops in Amsterdam. When you walk through the front door, what you see is what you get – they sell cannabis and related products openly.

But what comes in the back door, and especially where the remarkable variety of cannabis products come from, is a lot murkier. Coffeeshops are not allowed to keep more than 500 grams on the premises at any given time, so squads of young men on mopeds make regular trips to restock stores.

When the coffeeshop phenomenon began in the 1970s, Amsterdam had a serious heroin problem. In a bid to separate the market for hard and soft drugs, the authorities stopped prosecuting possession of cannabis. Pot and hash were sold and smoked freely, and coffeeshops like the legendary, now-defunct Mellow Yellow sprang up.

In 1980, coffeeshops were legalized and they thrived – with as many as 1,500 in Amsterdam alone. The Dutch are renowned for their horticultural skills and shops were supplied mainly by ‘Mom and Pop’ growers.

It was not until 1995 that coffeeshops were licensed – and 350 licences were issued in the capital. Since then, there has been a steady increase in rules and red tape, and a gradual decline in the number of stores. There was even talk of banning foreign tourists from the shops.

The supply chain has also come to be taken over, at least in part, by organized crime. Canada has decided to tackle that problem with legalization while, in the Netherlands, that discussion is just beginning.

Cannabis joints are being rolled, costing 10 Euros per gram, in a coffee shop on November 1, 2012 in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands.

At the legendary Bulldog coffeeshop, Dan, one of a quintet of Canadians from suburban Toronto, says he is looking forward to legalization, but nothing beats the coffeeshop atmosphere.

“We should have these back home,” he says. “I mean, there are bars where you can drink, why not coffeeshops where you can smoke?”

Ms. Fordham of the IDPC says it’s not a half-bad idea. “There are many restrictions about where people can smoke so, from a policy perspective, if you’re going to legalize, it makes sense to have places where people can consume the product.”

But, for now, coffeeshops remain an exclusive trait of Amsterdam, one that Tony Balboa, manager of the Coffeeshop Information Centre, says really makes the city memorable for many.

“Canals are nice, Van Gogh is nice, but coffeeshops are what really makes Amsterdam special.”

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