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Amsterdam to close many brothels, marijuana cafes

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Amsterdam unveiled plans Saturday to close up to half of the famed brothels and marijuana cafes in its ancient city center as part of a major cleanup operation.

The city says it wants to drive organized crime out of the district, and is targeting businesses that “generate criminality,” including prostitution, gambling parlors, “smart shops” that sell herbal treatments, head shops and “coffee shops” where marijuana is sold openly.

“I think that the new reality will be more in line with our image as a tolerant and crazy place, rather than a free zone for criminals” said alderman Lodewijk Asscher, one of the main proponents of the plan.

The city said it would also reduce the number of business it sees as related to the “decay” of the center, including peep shows, sex theaters, sex shops, mini supermarkets, massage parlors and souvenir shops.

The city said there were too many of these and it believes some are used for money-laundering by drug dealers and the human traffickers who supply many of the city’s prostitutes.

Asscher underlined that the city will remain true to its freewheeling reputation.

“It’ll be a place with 200 windows (for prostitutes) and 30 coffee shops, which you can’t find anywhere else in the world — very exciting, but also with cultural attractions and you won’t have to be embarrassed to say you came,” he said.

Under the plan announced Saturday, Amsterdam will spend euro30-euro40 million ($38-$51 million) to bring hotels, restaurants, art galleries and boutiques to the center. It will also build new underground parking areas for cars and bikes and may use some of the vacated buildings to ease a housing shortage.

Amsterdam already had plans to close many brothels and said last month it might close some coffee shops throughout the city, but the plans announced Saturday go much further.

Asscher said the city would use various techniques to reshape the area, including rezoning, buying out some businesses and offering others assistance in “upgrading” their stores. In the past, the city has shut a number of brothels and sex clubs, relying primarily on a law that allows the closure of businesses with bookkeeping irregularities.

He said the city will also offer help for prostitutes and coffee shop employees who lose their jobs as a result of the plan.

Prostitution, which has spread into several areas of the center, will be allowed only in two areas — notably De Wallen (“The Walls”), a web of streets and alleys around the city’s medieval retaining dam walls. The area has been a center of prostitution since before the city’s golden shipping age in the 1600s.

Prostitution was legalized in the Netherlands in 2000, formalizing a long-standing tolerance policy.

Marijuana is technically illegal in the Netherlands, but prosecutors won’t press charges for possession of small amounts and the coffee shops are able to sell it openly.

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