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A Brief History of Coffeeshops in Amsterdam

Picture of Tom Coggins
Updated: 20 September 2017
There are currently over 200 certified coffeeshops in Amsterdam that are legally allowed to sell cannabis. Although these organisations still operate on the margins of the law, earlier coffeeshops in Amsterdam had to sell the drug covertly before it was decriminalised in the 1970s.

Mellow Yellow is widely recognised as the first coffeeshop in Amsterdam and paved the way for similar businesses. This prototypical establishment was founded in 1972 at a time when cannabis was becoming more tolerated in the Netherlands. However, selling the drug was still illegal, meaning that Mellow Yellow’s owners had to disguise transactions and hide the business’ primary source of income.

In order to avoid raising suspicions, dealers inside Mellow Yellow would act like regular customers by sitting at the coffeeshop’s bar and then secretly sell packaged cannabis to other seemingly unassuming patrons. 

Even though the police raided Mellow Yellow several times, they never found any explicit evidence of criminal activity, meaning they couldn’t close down the coffeeshop or stop drug deals from taking place inside its premises. Eventually, other similar ventures started to materialise in Amsterdam, including one of the city’s most famous hangouts, The Bulldog.

Inside a coffeeshop in Amsterdam | © Charlesblack / WikiCommons / The Bulldog is one of the oldest coffeeshops in Amsterdam | © Sherpas 428 / Flickr / Most coffeeshops are in the Red Light District | © pixabay

A few years later, the Dutch government decriminalised cannabis under new policy that was created to ease problems associated with narcotics. These rulings meant that law enforcement in the Netherlands could focus on more pressing issues rather than struggling to deal with the cannabis industry. Although the drug was decriminalised, this didn’t mean it became legal. In fact, selling cannabis remained a criminal offence, but dealers could avoid prosecution so long as they followed certain regulations.

Since the decriminalisation, hundreds of cannabis coffeeshops have been established in Amsterdam and elsewhere in the Netherlands. In order to remain in business, these coffeeshops have to comply with certain nationwide regulations and even restrictions created by their specific local government.

While some of coffeeshop limitations are pretty clear cut (e.g. that alcohol is prohibited inside coffeeshops), others aren’t quite so straightforward. For example, even though coffeeshops are allowed to buy and sell cannabis, it is illegal to cultivate large crops of the drug in the Netherlands. This means that coffeeshops have to buy their stocks from illicit sources but then  are allowed to sell the drug legally (albeit on a smaller scale) to clients.