“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 women 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.

In an effort to curb tourists gawking at sex workers—and limit the amount of foot traffic—the city government announced a ban on tours of the Red Light District starting January 1, 2020.

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.

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 tougher on hard drug abuse. Ironically, improvements in Dutch cannabis cultivation techniques have increased the concentration of the active ingredient THC from 9 percent in 2000 to around 17 percent today.

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. However, the Netherlands plays a central role in the production and distribution of synthetic drugs, including MDMA, GBH, and methamphetamines, with an estimated revenue of around 19 billion euros, making it one of the world’s largest producers.

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 in 2010 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’s marijuana trade came in 2010, when the government announced its intention to force all of the country’s surviving coffee shops—which numbered around 650 (down from a peak of 2,000 in 1997)—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. Ultimately, the law was shelved, but the Dutch courts continued to chip away at the number of coffee shops in Amsterdam, ruling in 2017 that a coffee shop cannot operate within a 250-meter radius of a school. Today around 175 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 risks a fine, and it is officially illegal to smoke dope in the streets, and also illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to buy drugs, even in 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 the Party for Freedom (PVV), which in elections since 2010 has consistently won around 15 percent of the vote, making it one of the largest parties 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. Surging in popularity is the Forum for Democracy (FvD), an anti-immigration, anti-EU party led by Thierry Baudet which first participated in elections in 2017. Baudet capitalized on the March 18, 2019 suspected terrorist attack in Utrecht, a city 40km from Amsterdam, where four people were shot dead aboard a tram. His party captured 12 out of 75 seats in the provincial elections held on March 20, 2019—more than Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD)—and is sure to shape Dutch politics in the coming years.

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