A policy of tolerance in the Netherlands has created an indifferent view of marijuana and one of the lowest pot-smoking rates in the industrialized world.
The London Free Press (Canada), Apr. 28, 2002
By JASON BOTCHFORD, Special to The Free Press
AMSTERDAM – It takes about a five-minute walk after arriving at Central Station to realize you’ve just landed on Fantasy Island.
With working girls beckoning for business in bay windows and the tangy smell of marijuana wafting out every time a coffee shop door is opened, the anything-goes fantasy is not exactly for everyone.
It’s just one small part of one city in the Netherlands, but it has become a flashpoint for the international marijuana debate, a legendary tourist stop that deals marijuana as regularly as Las Vegas dealers end up with blackjack.
A city, and a country, where people can wander into certain cafes and buy a small amount of cannabis without fearing arrest or prosecution. A drug policy some say is the most effective in the world.
“In Holland, we believe you can do what you want as long as you don’t bother anyone else,” said Wernard Bruining, who was one of the first to have a coffee shop licensed to sell pot in the 1970s.
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Back in 1972, the founder of the Mellow Yellow Coffeeshop had no idea he was part of a revolution that would be watched and studied by the rest of the world.
“Marijuana won’t go away,” Bruining said. “I think that one day all of Europe will be like Holland.”
It’s already happening as Great Britain, Belgium and Switzerland, among other countries, are moving toward more liberal treatment of marijuana.
In the Netherlands, marijuana is not legal although it would be hard to tell after walking by many of the 300-odd Amsterdam coffee shops that sell pot.
A national tolerance policy in the Netherlands allows people to carry 30 grams and less. The coffee shops can sell customers no more than five grams at a time.
It has created a rather indifferent view of pot from the nation’s 15 million citizens and one of the lowest weed-smoking rates in the industrialized world.
The latest United Nations study on global drug trends shows the Netherlands wouldn’t even crack the top 50 in marijuana consumption. The annual percentage of people older than 15 who smoke pot in the Netherlands is 4.1 per cent. In comparison, 8.9 per cent of Canadians who say they smoke weed.
“Marijuana is just no big deal here,” said Henk Lokhorst, who lives just outside Amsterdam. “It’s lost that taboo feel. Most of my friends don’t smoke. It’s just not a part of their lives and not something you think about. In Canada, there is still that allure — that idea of a forbidden fruit.
“The Dutch don’t have these coffee shops because they want to smoke pot. They have them for two reasons: one, the system seems to work and two, people are making a lot of money.”
It’s still attractive to tourists. There is no question marijuana is a big draw, right there with prostitutes and Van Gogh.
The coffee shops are busiest on weekend evenings when young hipsters from all over the world congregate to smoke spliffs and test their intellect and pickup lines with one another.
Stacy and Lynn are 18 years old and from Ontario. They’d rather their mother not know what they were up to on vacation. To them, Amsterdam is Oz.
“You get a strange feeling when you walk into a coffee shop in Amsterdam,” said Stacy while in the Green House, a famed, award-winning coffee house.
“You’re intimidated. For a moment you think you’re doing something dirty. And then it goes away and soon it’s just part of the culture. You look around and I guarantee you will think ‘What is wrong with this? Why does this upset so many people?’ “
The girls are boggled by the menus they’ve sifted through: haze skunk, Maui mist, red dawn, white widow, blueberry bubblegum, silver haze, and the super skunk.
“And here I thought pot was just pot,” Lynn said.
The girls spend 15 euros — about $25 Cdn — on some recommended Maui mist and are set for the night.
Coffee shop owners estimate for every 20 euros tourists pay for marijuana, they’ll spend 200 euros on food and lodging in the city.
The goal of the country’s drug policy was to emphatically distinguish soft drugs such as marijuana from hard drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and amphetamines.
The coffee shops are designed to be the conduit of that policy. They can only sell to people over 18 years old, are rarely licensed to sell alcohol, can’t advertise and can never sell hard drugs.
At the Green House, as is the case in most good coffee shops, the pot is strong. On the menu a brand called AK-47 is nicknamed “the killer.” Its tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level is somewhere between 18 and 22 per cent, or about three times higher than the average pot you’ll find in Canada.
“I wanted the strongest stuff they had and they sold me this for 12 euros,” American tourist Eddie Ponika said. “I’m an experienced hitter and this stuff nearly knocked me out.”
Maybe not quite the desired effect Green House proprietor Arjan was going for, but close enough.
“The growing of stronger and different varieties of marijuana was the base in the plan for keeping a lot of people from using hard drugs,” Arjan said. “The lack of good cannabis is the start for some people to use hard drugs.”
Coffee shops are an eclectic mix of bar-like atmospheres. Some have Jamaican and eastern-Asian themes.
In the Mellow Yellow on a recent visit, five people are there. One professional reading a local newspaper, a couple on a date and two 20-something tourists, coughing as they roll cone after cone.
“Marijuana is the only drug I would touch and that’s just once a week,” said Gries van der Lingen, an Amsterdam salesperson. “It’s just a peaceful getaway.”
Popular coffee shops can make more than one million euros a year. A gram of marijuana costs between eight and 15 euros, on average.
There are also other “smart shops” throughout Amsterdam where you can legally buy magic mushrooms and herbal pills like ephedra and “natural ecstasy.”
In the red-light district, tourists can’t walk half a block without being asked to buy cocaine or ecstasy. The dealers work near cops, half-heartedly trying to conceal what they’re doing but the cops don’t really care.
“They sell the hard drugs here to prey on the tourists — that’s where the market is,” said police officer Adriaan Simonszoon.