Now that so many of us live in places that've legalized cannabis, the Netherlands' well-known "coffeeshops" — where customers gather to buy and enjoy marijuana — no longer feel nearly as remarkable to many international travelers as they did in the not-so-distant past. But these joint-selling joints, which have been part of Dutch life for more than half a century, still offer a memorable cultural experience (provided you keep your intake low enough to remember it).
Unlike in a North American dispensary, in a Dutch coffeeshop you can smoke the weed you've just bought. (You can usually also smoke weed you'd bought elsewhere, as long as you buy something at all, such as a cup of coffee — but ask first.) While these shops do good business selling their pot to-go, they're just as much places to hang out as they are retail operations. Customers are welcome to spend hours and hours there — just as they are in a British pub or any European café.
Inside Amsterdam's urban center, most coffeeshops have a grungy feel that's understandably unappealing, even intimidating, to all but the youngest and most tattooed travelers. But sprinkled around the city are plenty of places with an ambience more like a neighborhood pub or mellow teahouse (I list my favorites of these in my guidebooks). The coffeeshops of smaller Dutch cities also tend to have a low-key vibe. While weed consumption certainly isn't for everyone, these places offer travelers — both regular marijuana users and those curious to try — a unique way to go local.
The misleading local meaning of the English word "coffeeshop" arose in the early 1970s, when several actual coffee shops in Amsterdam hosted a thriving, semi-secret drug trade. These days you can still get tea, coffee (of varying quality), and snacks at Dutch "coffeeshops," but it's widely understood that cannabis is the core of their sales. A place that primarily sells coffee and such is called a koffiehuis (or just "café"), and Amsterdam's delightful café scene — particularly for its traditional, often candlelit "brown cafés" — is also well worth your time. (And though they trade in drugs, the brightly lit "smartshops" you'll see around town are nothing like a coffeeshop: They're stores, not hangouts, and generally don't sell smokable marijuana. They do, however, sell just about any other kind of mind-altering substance, provided it's all-natural: psilocybin truffles, peyote, you name it — but not magic mushrooms, per EU law.)
If you're alert to the difference in terms, you're unlikely to stumble into the wrong kind of "coffee"/coffee shop. Legally, the pot-selling kind isn't supposed to advertise their business, but many make it pretty plain, displaying Rastafarian imagery (red-yellow-green Ethiopian flags, Bob Marley portraits) and even marijuana-leaf shapes. The storefronts of more genteel coffeeshops, however, tend to be pretty subtle. When in doubt, step up and get a good sniff — your nose will know.
The no-advertising rule is one of many restrictions the Dutch place on the retail sale of marijuana, most of them designed to keep the trade small-scale. Coffeeshops can sell just five grams of wiet per person per day, and aren't allowed to keep an inventory of much more than a pound of pot at any given time. (Popular shops simply put up with the hassle of constantly taking small deliveries to stay supplied.) Most remain cash-only.
Many of the rules are quirkier and worth knowing in advance of a visit. For example, coffeeshops are supposed to provide a "menu" of their products only to those who request one, and some display their menus in cases that are darkened until a customer presses and holds a button to illuminate the list of what's available.
However you see the menu, it's likely to be long — most Dutch coffeeshops, particularly in Amsterdam, sell a huge variety of strains, nearly all of it grown locally. You may see some items with names implying they've come from overseas, such as a "Thai" joint — but while those strains originated elsewhere, they're almost certainly still Dutch-grown. (The hashish, however, is mostly imported from Morocco.)
"Netherlands weed" is refined, like wine, and most shops get their inventory from the pot equivalent of local home- or microbrewers. Shops with "boutique" suppliers develop a reputation for having even better-quality weed. Coffeeshop "budtenders" are your best source of advice for deciding between the many options. As the marijuana sold here is stronger than what many Americans are used to, it's wise to heed their advice. Tourists who haven't smoked pot since their college days are notorious for overindulging in Amsterdam.
Coffeeshops all sell weed in baggies and joints, but only some sell edibles. (Edibles, unlike smokable marijuana, are also sold in liquor stores and some small shops — but not at smartshops.) Most baggies contain one gram of weed and sell for €10–15. Rolling papers are dispensed like a diner dispenses toothpicks, and many coffeeshops offer loaner bongs and vaporizers. Prerolled joints go for about €5 each, but beware: Most Dutch are accustomed to mixing marijuana with tobacco. Any place that gets a lot of American customers will have joints without tobacco, but you have to ask specifically for a "pure" joint.
No matter how commonplace cannabis feels in the Netherlands, now decades after its decriminalization, coffeeshops still operate on a quasi-legal basis. In recent years, responding to pressure from neighboring countries and socially conservative rural voters, the federal government has imposed new restrictions on coffeeshops — but mostly without much enforcement.
In some towns near the French and German borders, coffeeshops can sell pot only to ID-toting Dutch citizens. Plans to expand this "weed pass" system nationwide have stalled, but the future is uncertain. Amsterdam, in particular, values the pragmatic wisdom of its progressive policies and is bucking federal restrictions. Locals don't want shady people pushing drugs in dark alleys; they'd rather see marijuana sold in regulated shops. But as the city grapples with the downsides of its increasing popularity among tourists — especially the often-obnoxious "drug tourist" types — even many proudly permissive Amsterdammers are reconsidering this stance.
In certain Amsterdam neighborhoods, coffeeshop licenses aren't being renewed as readily as they once were, and the number of coffeeshops in the city has fallen from a peak of more than 700 in the mid-1990s to well under 200 today. (Though most Dutch cities of any size have a coffeeshop or two, Amsterdam still has by far the country's highest concentration.) While their legal limbo persists, coffeeshops are on their best behavior, carefully nurturing good relations with their neighbors, and, at least for now, still welcoming — as the rest of the country always will — open-minded travelers with a genuine interest in all aspects of Dutch culture.