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Covid lifts Dutch ‘coffee’ trade to new highs

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People queue outside a cannabis coffee shop on March 15, 2020 in The Hague, after the Dutch government ordered the closing of all schools, bars, restaurants, sex clubs and cannabis cafes in a bid to fight the spread of Covid-19. AFP

Covid lifts Dutch ‘coffee’ trade to new highs

At the No Limit coffee shop in The Hague the customers stream in and out endlessly, as the cannabis trade booms despite Covid restrictions.

Whether it is to calm their anxiety or ease the boredom of the past two years, many buyers say their consumption has increased during the pandemic.

“Covid has been good for us,” smiles Carmelita, the boss of No Limit who asked for her full name not to be published.

Before coronavirus, the shop had 300 to 350 customers a day, she says. Now it is 500.

“The only profession which is happy with Covid is coffeeshops,” she said.

When the Netherlands first locked down in March 2020 there were scenes of “weed panic”, with long queues outside coffeeshops, the Dutch term for cannabis cafes.

But while access to bars, restaurants and nightclubs has been sharply limited, coffee shops have been able to stay open, mostly for takeaway.

Since 1976, the Netherlands has tolerated the smoking of cannabis and hashish, weed and other products which can be bought at coffee shops. The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government, has around 30.

“Before, they were going to the disco. But now everything is closed, so now they stay home, where they smoke more,” says Carmelita, adding that her clientele includes “many housewives, who buy weed to sleep well.”

“There’s nothing to do in town, so you just smoke joints” with friends, says Sophia Dokter, 18, who used to smoke two or three times a week, but now says it’s six or seven times.

Confront the anxiety

A survey by Trimbos, a research institute on mental health and addictions, found that 90 per cent of Dutch cannabis users were smoking as much or more since the start of the pandemic. Three-quarters were smoking every day.

“So it is not about people wanting to get high, to escape. It is more a way to cope with the everyday anxiety,” says Stephen Snelders, a historian of drug use.

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The view outside of a coffee shop in The Hague on December 3. AFP

Similar changes in the use of tobacco and opium were seen in historic plague outbreaks in the Netherlands, he said.

During the stress of a pandemic, “a little brain holiday is always nice”, agrees Gerard Smit, who runs the Cremers coffee shop in The Hague. “There’s nothing wrong with having one [a joint] while you watch Netflix.”

However, Covid restrictions have emptied many of the coffee shops’ famed, fume-filled smoking rooms.

“We like each other, but we don’t give each other joints anymore,” says Smit.

Takeaway sales are booming though.

Trade is busy at Waterworld, another coffee shop in the city. Different types of weed with evocative names like “fruti punch”, “gelato” or “amnesia haze” are on display in large plastic containers.

“Careful, only three people at a time inside!” says Mesut Erdogan, a cashier. A sign on the door says: “To stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the smoking area is closed until further notice.”

Illegal except for taxes

“Nobody is coming inside any more” to smoke, says boss Abdoel Sanhaji, who is also president of the Alliance of The Hague Coffee Shops.

He says he respects the coronavirus rules, but is hoping for a change in the law when the pandemic is over.

In a somewhat stoner-esque paradox, the consumption and sale of cannabis have been decriminalised in the Netherlands, but the rest of the supply chain remains illegal.

The weed – which the coffee shops sell by the kilo every day, and for which they pay tax to the Dutch treasury – is effectively still forbidden in the Netherlands, as is its cultivation.

“We are illegal for nearly everything, except for paying taxes,” jokes Carmelita.

The Netherlands is, however, due to start an experiment in 10 towns where coffee shops will sell cannabis that is legally produced in the country. The results will be known in four years.

“Covid will have no impact on our drug policies,” says John-Peter Kools of the Trimbos institute. “Even Covid, with its 18 months of life, is nothing compared to 30 years of a heated debate.”


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