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The Dutch Coffeeshop system

30 years of experience with Hollands Tolerance-policy for cannabis and coffeeshops.

(by Nol van Schaik)

At this moment, early in 2002, with the focus of many countries on our coffeeshopsystem, it’s time to explain how it begun and evolved. The Dutch Model has proven to be the best possible way of approaching a world wide problem, the control of drug use and -abuse.
2002 is also the year of the 30th anniversary of the birth of a Dutch phenomena, the Hash-coffeeshop, where people can ‘score’ and smoke cannabis-resin and marihuana. 1972.

Wernard Bruining, Weed and the Weesperzijde.

The first ‘official’ teahouse or coffeeshop in Holland was opened by Wernard Bruining and some friends, at the Weesperzijde 53 in Amsterdam, in a squatted bakeryshop, in 1972. It was actually a logical follow-up of the friend to friend service that was going on in the place before that, but the group of friends extended rapidly, smoking hash, drinking tea and relaxing together.
“That gave us the idea to open a teahouse or a coffeeshop, that was easy, since there was no permit required. The name was inspired by the Donovan hit in those days : Mellow Yellow. “If you do not have anything to smoke, you can always get a little high of a baked bananapeel !” as Wernard explains it.
There were other adresses to get hash or weed, like Paradiso and Kashba, both youth-centers, and in the Melkweg and Famos, for instance. Besides these public places the city had some housedealers, two of them above the former policestations at the Overtoom and Stadionweg, where the customers were informed not to throw their roaches out of the window, on the doorstep of the Police, do not wake up a sleeping cop !

It was a perfect time to open an establishment where Amsterdams hash-smokers could get their cannabis without much hassle.Wernard left the sales of the goods to an English neighbour, who sat in the former bakeryshop for two-three hours a day, as a ‘housedealer’. Wernard and Co did not want more dealers in the place.

Wernard : “We called the place a teahouse, thinking that would indicate the sales of stuff, as we called cannabis those days. Everybody knew it as coffeeshop however, and they all knew what was offered there.” “The atmosphere in the beginning was superb and enlightning, friends who all gathered, to smoke, talk and play a game of tablesoccer.”

Towards the end of 1972, after the housedealer left for Greece on a new adventure, Wernard and his friends, Peter van Schie, Herman and Wernards girlfriend Marian, had to adjust to a more professional way of exploiting the business.
Herman was the thriving force, ‘organising’ all material to give the Mellow Yellow a new look in 1973, with wooden benches and tables, and a fresh and white interior, in total contrast with the dark, shimmery look of the youth-centers, that were decorated with wallcarpets and poorly lit. Peter became the dealer, behind the bar this time.
Peter became famous for carrying around a big, brown leather bag, wich he had especially designed, and from wich he sold all sizes and weights in pre-packed ‘stuff’.
It began with 25 guilder bags, initiated by Herman, with slices of hash, cut by Wernard, “From lumps of a pound, or so…” The pre-packed bags were ‘stashed’ in a bookstore nearby, to be able to supply the dealer on short notice. The customers did not have to bargain about the price any longer, this method became common in the hash-business, and is still maintained in Hollands present Cannabisbranche.
The Mellow Yellow was open from wake-up time until 3 o’clock in the morning, serving cannabis, coffee and cosy compagny to a growing crowd. Initially, the softdrugs were purchased from a small dealer on a houseboat, 50 or 100 grams at a time, the major part being Lebanese hash, weed was not available in large quantities yet.
As business grew, the demand grew, more people started to come in and offer merchandise, including someone from Marocco. Wernard started to do business with Caesar, “He was a big man in the business, and he just liked us”, said Wernard, “ Known as the main man those days.”

The transactions were being made in Caesars home at the Hoofddorpsquare. Wernard explained how he learned a lot from the way Caesar did hid business : “He always kept all his contacts away from each other, his house could be full of people, in the kitchen and even in the bedroom, but they would never see one and other. Caesar kept his suppliers and customers separated, a good lesson to be learnt.”
The purchases became bigger, the ‘menu’, as the variation of cannabis was mentioned, was expanded with Maroccan and Afghani hashes, even some Indonesian weed, which Wernard bought for about 900 guilders per kilo. The weed was sold in ten gram bags, some people, from the Amsterdam grey area, even bought ten bags at a time. The Mellow Yellow was thriving, too well, according to Wernard, in 1974 the opening hours were adjusted. “We opened from 6 o’clock from then, we could not handle the overwhelming day time rush anymore.”
Peter and Marian took turns as dealers, and moved to being in front of the bar, enabling them to pay more attention to the smoking clientele. There was no competition of other coffeeshops yet, and the police did not seem to bother.
The police was fully concentrated on the heroin, that hit the Amsterdam market in 1972, even though hash was as forbidden as the opiate.

“The view on hash was different then”, as former head-prosecutor Hartsuiker remembers, “The use of hash was not considered a real problem.”


The Mellow Yellow was unique in its kind, until 1975, when more hashcoffeeshops started to open up. Maarten, a regular at Mellow Yellow’s, who saw an example to be followed, opened coffeeshop Rusland (Russia), and came up with the slogan : “Invade Russia for a change !”. The police did exactly so, in the next years.
An other remarkable guy started a coffeeshop in Amsterdam in the same year, Henk de Vries, he opened a place called the Bulldog, at present he is the owner of four Bulldog coffeeshops in Hollands capital, and café’s in Vancouver, Canada, and Ibiza, Spain.
Henk de Vries had his share of difficulties with the police, he even spent several years in prison in Germany, after a deal with an undercover policeman.
Wernard knew Henk already back then, as a guy that did some hashdeals for fun. Eventually, it went so good for him, he decided to start his own business.
With Henk de Vries and his Bulldog, a new kind of cannabusinessmen started to emerge, more commercial than the hippie-styled Mellow Yellow and Paradiso scene, consisting of a student and intellectual crowd.

De Vries had several collissions with the Law, and was even the subject of an expensive investigation, with telephonetaps and all, but it was called off, for unknown reasons. The police was to occupied to keep busting coffeeshops, the Chinese heroin-triades were in conflict with big time smugglers and dealers from Turkey, over power on the Amsterdam heroinmarket.
His second aggressor was the Taxman, he was haunted by the tax authorities for years, but managed to stay in business and prosper, against all odds. De Vries was the first one to come up with houserules, and put those up in his businesses.
No harddrugs, No violence and No sales of stolen goods, or we have to call the police !
These rules were later included in the Tolerance-policy, expanded with some rules the government felt they had to add.
Henk de Vries and other steady coffeeshopkeepers kept on re-opening their raided coffeeshops, time after time, forcing the police to give up on the hard line, after finding out that coffeeshops and their visitors caused no real problems.
Henk was not appreciated for all that back then, and that did not become any better when he had a promotion-plane flying over Amsterdam, in 1985, with the text : “The Bulldog, the first, the best, the biggest !” After 25 years of cannabisness and fighting all forces against him, Henk de Vries is still going strong, and an asset to the coffeeshopculture.


The Dutch government made a big decision in changing their Opiumwet (Druglaws), by separating drugs in two major classes, harddrugs and softdrugs.

Heroin, Cocain, XTC and amfetamins, chemical drugs with unacceptable hazards for national health, were and are considered “Harddrugs”.

Cannabisproducts like hash and marihuana, natural products, without chemical addition, were and are considered “Softdrugs”.

This step was taken to keep the users of cannabis away from harddrugsusers, by allowing the sales of small quantities of cannabis from regulated outlets. By not allowing the sales and use of any other drugs in those outlets, this system succesfully stood firm against those who accuse cannabis of being a gateway drug. By having cannabis available, the step to harddrugs could be prevented, and it did, the number of problematic harddrugusers ( aka: Junks) in Holland is the lowest throughout Europe. The minimum age for admittance was 16 years, until 1994, when the government changed that minimum to 18 years of age. That was very counterproductive, and should be changed back, to ensure the 16-17 year olds of a safe enviroment to purchase and use softdrugs, the streetdealers that supply these youth’s with cannabis from then, might also be involved in the dealing of harddrugs.


The coffeeshops in Amsterdam were an inspiration for smokers from the whole of Holland, and they started to open coffeeshops and teahouses all over the country.
Local housedealers came out in the open, and started to sell cannabis in former bars and café’s, some in combination with alcohol, some with only coffee and tea.
It caused some trouble in the border area’s, when Germany started to complain about a youth-center in Enschede, that sold hash, that might attract German smokers !
The Germans had it their way, the sales were forbidden. In other border area cities, like Arnhem and Nijmegen, coffeeshops started as well, but kept the sales low profile. The police left them alone, no trouble, no attention, no police enforcement.

All this drove up the prices of the hash, the buildings and staff in the strongly commercialising cannabusiness had to be paid, but still remained affordable for those interested.
It was the Wild West era of coffeeshopping, nobody minded selling larger quantities, because there were no legal limits to the tolerated sales of softdrugs, only the 30 gram for personal use restriction, but that was never held in account during that period.
The police was still to occupied with the heroin and cocainsmuggling organisations, they did catch and confiscate big hashtransports, but the involved suspects were usually released after six hours.
Thusway, it was made easy for criminals, involved in major drugtransports, to get their operations going, wich led to huge conflicts in the ‘underworld ’. Hash had become big business. People and organisations started to ripp eachother off, or even intercepted loads on their arrival, nobody was to be trusted.
The police was always two steps behind, as they found out in 1987, when they realised they allowed the creation of a humungous monster, consisting of a couple of multi-billion hash-organisations, smuggling huge quantities to Europe and other parts of the world.
It gave Holland a bad reputation, and lead to an isolated position in Europe and the rest of the world, who were calling the Netherlands a Drugnation.


Around 1990, Holland counted around 1450 coffeeshops, 400 in Amsterdam, the other 1000+ spread over the 12 provinces, with concentration in the bigger cities, and in the border area’s with Belgium and Germany.
The coffeeshopculture offered a shop for every group of the population or lifestyle, from hippie-style shops to supermarket like shops, who gave out stamps to keep the customers coming back, they became rural and urban meetingplaces or even a second home. Coffeeshops are usually equipped with a lot of games, like pooltables and tablesoccer in the spacious places, or chess and backgammon in the living room style shops.

I started my first coffeeshop, Willie Wortel Workshop in 1991, in Haarlem, the countycapital of North-Holland, 12 miles from Amsterdam towards the coast.
It was not new to Haarlem, the WWW was the 22nd coffeeshop in town, so it was not easy to start competing with all these collegues, in a city with 160.000 inhabitants.
It was hard to get in the picture, but we managed to get more and more visitors, mainly because of the big place, equipped with 2 pooltables, tablesoccer, pinballs, computers and all boardgames, and, of course, a constant quality in cannabisproducts.
The Willie Wortel was and is a membership club, with a permision to sell cannabis, in small quantities. We made membership obligated for the 16 and 17 year olds from the beginning, to prevent the staff from asking for ID all the time, a lot of younger kids tried to get in and buy cannabis.
The Justice department and the police started a last offensive against coffeeshops in 1993, when all kinds or criteria were made up and slowly put in effect. The government wanted to separate cannabis from alcohol, wich caused a major problem for hundreds of coffeeshops, throughout the country. The coffeeshoppolicy was meant to be national, but it turned out that the Mayor of each city could apply and change the rules to his liking or situation.
This made it possible for the Mayor of Amsterdam, Patijn, to not go along with the separation rule, so in our capital you can still buy and smoke cannabis in around 90 places that sell alcohol as well as cannabis, the other 100+ coffeeshops only sell cannabis and coffee.
Other major cities, like Den Haag and Rotterdam, forced their coffeeshops to separate the sales, and so did the rest of Holland.
It was also up to the Town Mayors to decide to have coffeeshops or not, the ones opposed to cannabis, could go for the so-called zero-option, no coffeeshops at all.
That escape was used by all Mayors that were member of the CDA, the catholic-democratic political party, zero-tolerance was their parties official stance. Holland ended up with several hundreds of coffeeshoppolicies, instead of one, and is still in that shape today.

In 1993, as stated earlier, Holland had its highest number of coffeeshops ever, around 1450. That changed after 1994, in 1996 the number of coffeeshops was down to about 1275, caused by the police following up on the new guidelines, and closing coffeeshops that broke the rules too many times. It was a difficult time for the coffeeshopkeepers in those dark days, they could only have 30 grams of cannabis in stock, so, many were closed because they had to much cannabis in the place. Haarlem was the only exception, with the 1500 gram rule the police allowed, but still we ended up with 16 coffeeshops in 1996. The coffeeshops that were closed did all break the rules on several occasions, two of them just quit for having no more business.

Haarlem started as testmodel, meant to be the example for Holland, in 1994, informing the coffeeshopkeepers of the unexpected check ups they could have, and about how much we could have in stock, 1500 grams !
The rest was according to the rules as they were already invented by Henk de Vries, no violence, no harddrugs, no fencing, and, in Haarlem, no alcohol. The city of Haarlem also announced that they wanted to reduce the number of coffeeshops to 15, from the 22 outlets at that time.
That would not be done by a hunt for coffeeshopkeepers, they would only be closed if they broke the rules, that were issued a week later.

They were called the AHOJG criteria, and became active in October 1994 in Holland.
Breaking either one of these rules, could get you a yellow card, like in soccer, the police would be able to close you on receiving the third yellow card, no more Mellow Yellow !

The capitals need some further explanation :

A : the A means : NO Advertising for the sales of softdrugs. No more weedleafs on the front of coffeeshops, in some cities it was even forbidden to have your logo and adres printed on your lighters ! No stickers, no T-shirts, no ads.
*In Haarlem we can have our logo on our products, and even advertise !

H : the H stands for : NO Harddrugs on the premises, not for sale and not for personal use. The shopkeeper and staff have to be real sharp on this, the police is !
Coffeeshops do not allow problematic harddrugusers in, for that reason, their personal stash could mean a yellow card for the coffeeshop, on a check up.
*Two coffeeshops in Haarlem were closed for that reason !

O : the O stands for NO Overlast, wich word actually means: Disturbing of the peace, like to loud music, customers being to loud on leaving the premises, etc. This rule goes for all bars, cafes and restaurants too, and are common in Dutch society.

J : The J is your Y, for NO Youths, they are not allowed in under 18 years of age. It used to be 16, until this restriction, wich was not causing any problems to the young people, they kept on finishing their educations. It was then possible to smoke a joint after school, in a coffeeshop, after wich they went home for dinner and schoolwork.
*In Haarlem we could still allow 16/17 year olds, most of them were sent to Willie Wortels, by our collegues, we had around 300 members in that age group, registered and with consent of their parents.

G : The G stands for NO Big Quantities, coffeeshops were not allowed to sell more than 5 grams, per person, per day. Coffeeshops were allowed to stock a maximum of 500 grams. The last was a major improvement for all Dutch coffeeshops, except the ones in Haarlem…

The coffeeshops in Haarlem received a letter from the city, telling us they understood this change was a big one for us. We were ordered to build down our stock, from 1500 to 1000 grams in March, 1995, to the intended 500 grams in June, 1995.


Haarlem became really serious about the age rule as well, we were forced to sent 316 members, 16 and 17 years of age, out on the street… We had been padded on the shoulder by the police and the city for years, for our system with registration and passes, but now we were treated as pushers, trying to get young people to smoke cannabis! The situation was on national TV, for several times, parents of our former members openly showed their support for our system, it did not matter. We had to let go of them and our system after two yellow cards, we could not afford the third. The yellow cards were never issued as such, the police and the city could see my point, and threw them out.
I ended up in Cityhall, explaining my situation and motivation about the age issue to the Chief of the Bar and Coffeeshop Police Dep.(Special Laws), and a representative of the citycouncil.
This made me ask them to invite all coffeeshopkeepers of Haarlem, instead of just accusing me, they could, I stated my protest in the newspapers. The officials thought that was a good idea, so all my collegues and me were invited for a meeting, in January of 1998.

This meeting resulted in many a good thing, I asked why we could not be accepted with 16 coffeeshops, since we were all subdue of check-ups for some years now, and everyone was in line with all rules. The citycouncil did not know the police still used the ‘die-out’ principle, meaning they wanted one more coffeeshop to close, no matter how long it took. My protest was against the fact that we all had no future, and that we wanted to have our promised rights, now, and for all 16. The police promised us to give us permission to move or sell the coffeeshops, in 1994, with the permit to sell cannabis, once we reached the desired number of 15 coffeeshops.
I stated this was unreasonable, we could be hit by a car, for instance, wich would mean the coffeeshop would be closed, the permit would not be transferred to the family or other intended inheritants, I was backed by all my collegues in this plea.
The Citycouncil found this situation unreasonable too, and told us they would look in to it, they would let us know within a month. I suggested to have a meeting like this on an annual basis, wich was awarded by both the city and the police.

We got very positive news on our request for continuity with our businesses, the city and the police accepted all 16 coffeeshops, and invited us for a next meeting, a few months later. At that meeting, we all received the new Haarlem coffeeshoppolicy, including our Right to sell or move the coffeeshop in Haarlem, with the permit to sell cannabis, according to the rules and regulations. An eventual sale and purchase of a coffeeshop was only subdue to a small check up, the owner-to-be needs a transcript of good behaviour from the Justice department.
Since then, several coffeeshops in Haarlem are relocated, in co-operation with the city and police, some of them have new owners now. Unfortunately, this rule does not apply to the rest of the country, but it is supposed to be the model for Holland, the coffeeshopkeepers have to confront their respective citycouncils with the Haarlem system, I suggest.


The AHOJG rules and regulations are still valid today, and are still executed in all seriousness, two coffeeshops in Zaandam are closed for two weeks, from the 20th of January, 2002, they had more than 500 grams of cannabis in stock.

Today, Holland has around 900 coffeeshops, due to the appliance of the criteria, but the numbers are going back up slowly, smaller cities are allowing small numbers of coffeeshops, out of sense for reality, or because of an other Mayor, who lifts the zero-tolerance ban on his area.

Coffeeshops have slowly taken over the function of the former youth-houses and neighboorhoodcenters, were people used to come together, and took over a very important social role in Dutch society in doing so.
In a multi-cultural society, as the Dutch, they are the melting pots, the place where the word integration has a meaning. Coffeeshops are visited and frequented by people from all walks of life, from all colours, backgrounds, religions and ages, who smoke their cannabis in peace and tranquility, together.

The business in the Dutch coffeeshops has gone trough an evolution, over the last 10-12 years, in what they offer and sell. In 1991, when I opened the Willie Wortel Workshop, we mainly sold hash and some foreign weeds, all of it imported from various countries.
Nederweed was coming up, but the quantities were small, so the sales were 95 % of imported, or actually smuggled goods, the other 5 % was the available gardenweed and some homegrown.

Today, in 2002, the sales of most coffeeshops are about 75 % Dutch Homegrown, and out of the hash, wich is still mainly imported, a small part is even produced from Dutch plants, siffed of the flowers or leafs, gathered with the Pollinator or Ice-O-Lator, both Dutch hashextractor devices. Dutch homegrown marihuana pushed most of the imported hash of the market, slowly but surely, therefore, the quality of the offered hash is better than before, to be able to compete with the quality of the Netherweeds. The times of huge hashtransports is passed for years now, not by strong efforts of the police or the Justice department, but by thousands of amateurs, who grow the supplies for Dutch coffeeshops.

May they harvest and prosper….

* Wernard Bruining was Hollands cannabis-pioneer in many fields, he also started Hollands first ever growshop, Positronics, but he lost the battle against the taxes and other forces. His other great initiative, Mediweed, is still alive and caring today.
Wernard is presently publishing detailed information about selected coffeeshops and growshops in Holland.

* Nol van Schaik is the founder of three coffeeshops and the Global Hempmuseum in Haarlem, and co-founder of the first coffeeshop in the UK, Dutch Experience in Stockport.