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Dispensaries vs. Coffee Shops: What Can We Learn From The Dutch?

Dispensaries vs. Coffee shops: What Can We Learn From The Dutch?
Ricardo Liberato/Flickr


Dispensaries vs. Coffee Shops: What Can We Learn From The Dutch?

The Dutch coffee shop model is similar to the dispensaries seen across the United States with a few key differences.

With the recent wave of legalization use sweeping across North America, the US and Canadian entrepreneurs should find it in their best interest to turn their heads towards the Atlantic to have a look at what the old school masters have been doing for the past four decades. Since the first coffee shops opened up in Amsterdam circa 1975, the Dutch city has become a synonym for cannabis culture, the home of the very first High Times cannabis cup and a true mecca for cannabis consumers to visit at least once in their lifetime. When looking at dispensaries vs. coffee shops there are similarities but several key differences.

Cannabis Tourism

Although a small cannabis-oriented tourist circuit has begun to rise in Colorado and Washington after the legalization recreational marijuana, the industry is still light-years away from that of our Dutch forefathers.

To understand how Amsterdam achieved status as the weed capital of the world, we must first analyze how cannabis came to obtain its legal status there and under what particular circumstances it happened.

Yes, cannabis’ legal status in the US can come off as a bit of a contradiction, considering the plant is still illegal under federal law. Contradictions also exist in the Dutch system, although the country’s approach to legalization followed a different path.

Dutch law can be quite pragmatic. Following the realization in the early 1970’s that a drug-free society would be a complete utopia, the Netherlands’ government developed the so-called gedoogbeleid or “Tolerance Policy” to try and overcome the negative impact that prohibition would have had on their society.

Thus, the sale and consumption of cannabis within the premises of a licensed coffee shop became a reality. However, the Dutch system faced a paradox which it just recently began to resolve. While transaction of small quantities of marijuana is tolerated, mass production is still strictly forbidden and punishable by the full extent of the law.

This might sound like good news for the up-and-coming pot tourism entrepreneur, whose Napa Valley inspired tours have the capacity to offer, not only a taste of world-class strains but also a complete guided expedition throughout the entire world of cannabis production, from growth to harvest.

Even though state laws lay the grounds for the development of a cannabis-related mass tourism industry, it is highly unlikely that the US could ever replace Holland as the world’s pot hub, and for one simple reason: The Dutch were here first. And in this case, the early bird gets the joint.

The entire concept of tourism revolves around the idea of changing your location to find stuff you don’t have back home. Hence, Amsterdam’s pot tourism industry thrived as it remained, for decades, one of the only destinations in the western world where cannabis consumption was decriminalized: a safe haven for pot enthusiasts around the world to blow off some steam.

But, as the laws of the market dictate, the larger the competition, the smaller the clientele. As legalization becomes more of a global phenomenon, the success behind international cannabis tourism could diminish. To put it simply: why would you go overseas to get something you can find around the corner?

Still, cannabis tour operators should not throw in the towel just yet. They need to understand the conditions through which Holland came to be the pot capital of the world were very particular ones that are unlikely to repeat themselves. Also, there are recent reports of foreigners having trouble with immigration officers after admitting consumption under legal circumstances. Some even get barred from entering the country. As a result, we expect most cannabis tourism to remain domestic.

Dispensaries vs. Coffee Shops: One Key Aspect

After crossing the threshold of an Amsterdam coffee shop, a regular dispensary customer would find a familiar but slightly different scenario. A bartender will welcome you and with a wise look in their eye, guide you through a vast menu of strains, edibles, paraphernalia and more.

One key difference between the two is the smell. A dispensary usually smells like fresh flowers. On the other hand, a coffee shop has the intriguing and intoxicating fragrance of many different strains being lit up at once.

Consumer experience because is the most basic and profound differences between dispensaries and coffee shops. While the first, as the name suggests, are essentially places of purchase, the latter are focused on providing an integrated consumer experience, from the moment of purchase to the moment of munchies.

And, though this might seem like a superficial characteristic, one might argue that it’s the same contrast that separates a bar from a liquor store or a restaurant from a supermarket.

California has recently taken the lead in this respect, with some dispensaries obtaining a legal permit for on-site consumption in both San Francisco and LA. With laws and regulations constantly varying from state to state (and even between municipalities), many states are bound to follow California’s steps in the upcoming months, even though some instability might be expected as the waters settle. Canada itself has seen the rise of a BYOC (bring your own cannabis) vapor-lounge scene that is steadily growing as the country awaits nationwide legalization later this year.

However experienced and developed, Holland’s cannabis industry never managed to surpass the ultimate barrier, allowing for the commercialization of both cannabis and alcohol. Some coffee shops have managed to find workarounds. Given the fact that legislation regarding cannabis consumption is more flexible in the Netherlands and the law is more focused on regulating who’s allowed to sell than where consumers are allowed to smoke.

This lead to the christening of several smoke-friendly bars popping-up next door or across the street from many established coffee shops.

Though it’s fair to point out the same laws concerning the smoking of tobacco in public places would still always apply to weed smoke, it’s safe to say that, given the social component associated with recreational weed use, we have yet to hear the end of this discussion.

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