Coffeeshops are legal, legitimized businesses only in Amsterdam. The coffeeshops in the rest of Holland are still operating without official government license-- instead the government turns their head when it comes to law enforcement.
Don't get me wrong, there are still coffeeshops throughout Holland, including in the border towns like Maastricht, Nijmegen, and Roosendaal.. These can make for a nice stop on the train ride out of Holland, but I don't recommend you take any with you out of Holland.
The regulation of coffeeshops is strictly up to the local town council. The council will regulate such things as location and hours of operations.
Some towns have coffeeshops out in the open near the tourist areas. Other towns do not allow a sign saying "coffeeshop", you have to find it yourself. In Almere, there are no coffeeshops -- only delivery services. All this in interesting, but for now let's focus on the Amsterdam coffeeshop scene.
Before 1995 there were over 550 coffeeshops in Amsterdam. Back then, coffeeshops were illegal but tolerated businesses. Many of them were blurring the line between hard and soft drugs, irking the Dutch more and more.
Some Background -- Job Security in Europe
Then in 1995 something interesting happened. Before I tell the story, let me set up some backgroundEurope is a place where the workers have real job security. You just can't get fired from your job like in America . I am saying this to demonstrate that once a legitimate licensed business is established, the government will find it nearly impossible to shut it down. Closing businesses puts people out of work, and that is bad for family. The Dutch goverment is much more family oriented than we are here.
Another thing to see about the Dutch government is that just because they have a law doesn't mean they enfore it. In America everything tends to be black and white with the police -- not so in Holland.
For example, even in Amsterdam there is still a law against smoking pot -- but two police told me that it is completely unenforced. These same two police officers went on to tell me that it's OK to blatantly smoke pot in the streets, even in front of kids. But that is a different story.
Back to the Story How Coffeeshops Became Legitimate Businesses in Amsterdam
As I said, until 1995 coffeeshops were illegal but tolerated.
The Dutch first allowed coffeeshops to create a separation between soft and hard drugs. Unfortunately it did not work perfectly. First allowed in the early 70's, but the 1990's coffeeshops had degenerated into a front business for cocaine dealers and other nasty types.
So in 1995, more than 200 of 550 coffeeshops in Amsterdam were busted and closed. Because they were never legitimized businesses, they were seen as criminal operations and the closure was implemented.
Left behind were the 300-350 coffeeshops that the Dutch determined were still tolerable. A licensing board was setup and these remaining businesses were licensed and legitimized.
Then the number of licences was frozen. You can not get a new license to open a new coffeeshop. The owners of exisiting coffeeshops must love this, bless their little capitalist hearts.
The only way to get a coffeeshop now is to buy an existing one. You cannot just buy the license, you must buy the whole business. Also, if I understand correctly, you cannot move the business to a new location.
Still Some Criminals Out There
Yes there are still at least a few coffeeshops where cocaine and other hard drugs may be available. Even with the changes in 1995 you still pretty much have to be heavily involved with drug distribution to successfully own the average Dutch coffeeshop.
The tourist spots like the Grasshopper and the Bulldog may manage to survive legiitimately off their profits from marijuana sales and bar sales, but most of the coffeeshops remain nice places to hang out that just happen to be owned by crooks.
How it Works in Practice
While you can go into a coffeeshop and purchase up to 30 grams for personal use, you are not supposed to carry more than a few grams on you in Amsterdam. At the same time the person who grows a few pounds and sells it to the coffeeshop is breaking the law.
Now, for a minute, look at this from the coffeeshop owners point of view. They are not totally open operations. It is still bad etiquette to call a coffeeshop and ask them overly specific questions. Legally, a coffeeshop can only keep 500 grams in stock, and if you get really technical I think there is a law that puts the limit at 30. Even the 500 gram limit is not reality-based for the high volume coffeeshops, therefore many of those must keep more than the legally allowed amount of pot on premises.
The Amsterdam police have "soft drug specialists" who go around and check the coffeeshops. If a shop has too much pot they pay a fine. I don't think the pot gets confiscated, but I don't know for sure. Because only a small amount of resource is applied to this end, I consider the enforcement of the 500 gram limit to be a lottery system to see whose wrist gets slapped when. Amsterdam certainly has more resources available to do stricter checks, so I think they have worked a certain level of tolerance into the system -- they may not bother you much but you'll never be allowed to forget that the government is in control of the coffeeshop market in Amsterdam.
Because of the potential for hard drugs to creep into the retail soft drug coffeeshop, the police still tap phone lines and pay other sorts of attention to coffeeshops. Just like with the IRS in America, the government can get them at tax time, somehow matching reported income with expected or estimated levels of sales to safeguard against illegal operations. This is one way of trying to keep out the organized criminals from the soft drug market.
As the coffeeshops were the neato illegitimate venture of the 1970's, now SMART SHOPS are the 1990's equivalent. You can buy all kinds of hallucinogenic herbs, AS WELL as real live magic mushroom's from stores called SMART SHOPS.
Holland has a huge problem with a vast percentage of kids using ecstacy and other mind-bending drugs. Where will this go in the future?
The Cannabis Cup
Every year The Cannabis Cup is held in Amsterdam during the American holiday of Thanksgiving. For those who read High Times, this event is advertised well in advance, with package offers covering flights, hotels, and event tickets. I never went to it, but basically this event serves 2 purposes: first to allow the best growers to compete for awards, second to allow stoned tourists a pot-intensive vacation.
This is not just about who grows the best bud -- political activism is rampant. There are seminars and displays about the benefits of industrial hemp and medicinal marijuana. Conpiracy theorists abound telling each other stories of governmental domination and urban myth. Growers hold formal and informal sessions passing along their growing techniques.
If you recently discovered that The Emperor Wears No Clothes or you thought Reefer Madness was a fine piece of cinematography wrapped around a compelling story, then the Cannabis Cup may be for you. Excluding travel, the ticket for the 4-5 day event costs roughly $200 and up. Don't quote me. If you can stand flying in economy class and maybe making a connection or two, then you should buy the whole tour package. I personally think 10+ hours flying in tourist class is a bad experience. At the very minimum you need to bring your own food and lots of water.
As I said, I have never been to the Cannabis Cup. I took a different viewpoint: sure, I like to smoke pot in Amsterdam, but exclusive of the Cannabis Cup, there are 350 coffeeshops in town to sell pot. Maybe I'll go next time, but during my time in Europe I preferred to be a tourist. I can sit with my buddies and get stoned anytime -- while in Europe I reommend seeing as much art, history, and culture as possible.
Culture is the most important thing to study. The Dutch national museum, the Rijksmuseum, is a short tram ride from anywhere in Amsterdam. It was taken over by the Nazi's in WWII, and it houses some incredible artwork. Go there.