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“The Dutch Disease” is what a conservative U.S. columnist called Holland’s social liberalism. But not many of the hookers in Amsterdam’s Red Light District are Dutch, and relatively few denizens of the smoking coffee shops are Dutch. If Amsterdam is a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah, it’s one mainly for visitors.

Sex & Drugs

The uniquely Dutch combination of tolerance and individualism impacts areas of personal and social morality that in other countries are still red-button issues. In 2001, the world’s first same-sex marriage, with a legal status identical to that of heterosexual matrimony, took place in Amsterdam. The Dutch Parliament legalized regulated euthanasia in 2000, making The Netherlands the first country in the world to do so. And then there’s prostitution and drug use.

Prostitution is legal in Holland, and prostitutes work in clean premises, pay taxes, receive regular medical checks, are eligible for welfare, and have their own trade union. Around about 2010, most of the girls working in Amsterdam’s three red light districts  hailed from the Far East, but by 2014 there had been a sea change, with the majority hailing from eastern Europe, lured into the city by the removal of border controls within the E.U.

Authorities are not duty bound to prosecute criminal acts, leaving a loophole for social experimentation in areas that technically are illegal. It has been wryly said that the Netherlands has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe because whenever something becomes a criminal problem, the Dutch make it legal. Don’t laugh—at least not in Holland—or you may find you’ve touched the natives where they’re tender. The Dutch will take aim at anyone, on any issue, outside their borders. Just so long as it’s understood that everything inside has arrived at that hallowed state of perfection.

Popular belief notwithstanding, narcotic drugs are illegal in the Netherlands. But the Dutch treat drug use mainly as a medical problem rather than purely as a crime. The authorities distinguish between soft drugs like cannabis, which in some quarters are considered—rightly or wrongly—less likely to cause addiction and pose a minor health risk, and hard drugs like heroin and cocaine, which are highly addictive and pose significant risks to users’ health. Both are illegal, but the law is tough on hard drug abuse. Ironically, improvements in Dutch cannabis cultivation techniques have increased the concentration of the active ingredient THC from 9 percent to 18 percent in the past 10 years.

The Netherlands has significantly lower rates of heroin addiction, drug use, and drug-related deaths than Britain, France, Germany, and other European countries that criticize Holland fiercely on this issue. Still, the Dutch “tradition” of allowing visitors to the country to pop into what’s euphemistically known as a coffee shop to smoke an illegal but tolerated cannabis joint is under threat.

A legal ruling upheld the mayor of Maastricht’s decision to end cross-border drugs tourism into his city by banning foreigners from its smoking coffee shops. Rosendaal and Bergen op Zoom, two other border towns plagued by drugs tourists, simply shut down all of their coffee shops in 2009. The most serious threat to Amsterdam came in 2010, when the government announced its intention to force all of the country’s surviving coffee shops—their number reduced from a peak of close to 2,000 in 1997 to around 650, and are still falling—to become members-only clubs open only to residents of the Netherlands. This would have meant shutting out the tens of thousands of weed tourists who visit Amsterdam each year. With some coffee shops claiming that 99 percent of their customers are tourists—though an overall estimate of 40 percent is probably more accurate—many coffee shops would have closed if the proposals had become law. Not surprisingly, once the civic sums where done, these laws were quietly shelved, although the number of coffee shops in Amsterdam has continued to decline. Around 200 are still open and are strictly regulated: They all must be licensed and display the official green-and-white sticker in the window. Anyone caught carrying more than 5 grams (for personal use) of cannabis will be fined, and it is illegal to smoke dope in the streets, and also illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to buy drugs, even in the coffee shops. Ironically for venues that are already awash with the haze of dope smoke, smoking cigarettes is also illegal on the premises.

A Clash of Cultures

For the visitor, the very medieval heart of Amsterdam today presents much the same face it has over the centuries—a serene canalscape interwoven with a tangle of waterways, but around the extremities of the city, much is changing. Its industrious population still hangs on to the country’s age-old traditions of tolerance and immigrants of all political, religious, and ideological persuasions are still welcomed. However, almost a million (6 percent) of the country’s inhabitants are now Muslim and in recent years there have been indications that the welcome mat is wearing thin, thanks in part to threats from radical Islamists. Far-right-wing politician Geert Wilders has become a lightning rod for the racial tensions in contemporary Dutch society, inheriting the anti-Islam mantle of the gay populist politician Pym Fortuyn, assassinated in 2002 by a pro-Muslim Dutch activist; and also of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, murdered by a Dutch-Moroccan Islamist in 2004. Wilders heads Holland’s fourth-largest party, the Party for Freedom (PVV), which in elections in 2010 increased its representation from 9 to 24 out of 150 seats in the Lower House of Parliament. The PVV views Dutch society, culture, European values, and public safety as threatened by the growth of the Muslim community and of radical Islam. Wilders, who has described the Koran as a “fascist book,” and who wants Muslim migration into The Netherlands halted, lives under permanent police protection due to threats to his life. Various surveys of Dutch public opinion suggest a society that’s split on his views. In 2014 Wilders and his party won four seats in the European Parliament, based in Brussels, in elections that saw right-wing MEPs sweep alarmingly into power all over Europe.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.