There are many things that the Netherlands is well known for: gouda, windmills, dikes; being as flat as the pancakes the Dutch claim to have invented; having the tallest people in the world; canals, clogs, tulips and many other things beside. But there is really only one thing that they are infamous for, and that is their historically liberal approach to the so-called “soft drugs.”
This is particularly prevalent in Amsterdam where the heady smell of marijuana wafts above the canals, and coffeeshops lurk on every corner. Their range is impressive, and a testament to the innovation that occurs outside the shadow of prohibition. It is all here: White widow, Jack Herrerr, Bio Shiva, Lemon Haze, Santa Maria, Blue Cheese, Bubble special, Buddha Kush, AK-47, Purple Afghani – the list goes on.
The stigma against smoking must be more entrenched than I realise and it feels strange to suddenly be allowed to blaze one in public. And not just in public, in a shop specifically catering to your vice, where you can sit in relative peace in the company of strangers doing the same thing.
But it isn’t all roses and sunshine; there is a distinct sense that many of the shops in Amsterdam are deliberately trying to move you on as quickly as possible, creating an unwelcome tension for what is meant to be a leisure time activity. While the ease of access is novel I find the pressure to purchase drinks and to not outstay your welcome to be a little unsettling.
Fortunately this phenomenon seems limited to the most touristy of Amsterdam haunts (The Bulldog/Grasshopper anyone?) and the coffee shops in Utrecht are considerably more relaxed. Two particularly notable establishments are the Culture Boat and Hi/Lo, and their social atmosphere provides a welcome change from the usual clandestine consumption.
The Culture Boat is a Utrecht institution and floats on the canal near the beginning of Bilstraat. Moroccan lamps cast a gentle light on the wooden tables at each end of the boat and plants hang from the ceiling. The selection is moderate but the staff are relaxed and it is easy to pass the hours sipping tea and yarning amidst an eclectic background of world music and post-jazz.
In contrast to the pot-plant aesthetic of Culture Boat is the modern design of Hi/Lo. This recently completed project is the first new coffeeshop in Utrecht in 20 years, and it shows. The two levels reflect a basic play on the name: upstairs is Scandinavian in its sparse white décor while the basement is stylishly dim, with gold metal curtains and plush black leather sofas. It feels more like the VIP lounge of a huge club than a coffeeshop but the atmosphere is calm with patrons hunched over chessboards or splayed out under the National Geographic playing on the wall.
It seems like a tired argument but I find the ongoing criminalization of marijuana hard to get my head around. It makes little sense in a liberal democracy to forbid actions that involve no harm to others, and are only as, if not less, detrimental to your health than other legal pursuits. There is little point in canvassing the rest of the disinformation surrounding marijuana but its continuing status as an illegal substance is a droll reminder of the systemic inertia that keeps us trapped in an outdated past.
Those that cry wolf over gateway stories and societal deterioration struggle when confronted with the Dutch paradigm: weed use here is far lower than in countries where it is illegal, and the large majority of the Dutch I meet don’t smoke at all.
Given this position it is unsettling to see a shift in the bastion of liberal drug policies towards outlawing weed again. The recently unseated right wing government lasted just long enough to instigate the policy that is currently rolling out in the southern Netherlands and which will reach Amsterdam at the beginning of 2013. The controversial law forbids coffeeshops from selling to anyone that isn’t registered with a “wietpass”. In order to register you must be a resident and so all tourist trade in the psychoactive herb that generates so much revenue for Amsterdam will be driven underground.
In Tilburg the shops closed in protest of the law, but rather than stopping trading completely they simply shifted the supply to low-level dealers on the street. The weed is still present and fairly readily available, but now comes with the taint of criminality. It is, in a word, bullshit.
So I’m glad I have been here to experience how it worked, and hope that the new government will reconsider the change. It’s clear that prohibition is no solution to the problems of drug use; to continue on is to deny the failures of a misdirected approach.
Legalize. Regulate. Do whatever the fuck you want, just don’t waste government time and resources criminalizing fully functioning members of society. Make no mistake, it isn’t just the kids at the skatepark that smoke the herb – so does your doctor, your lawyer and the girl at the supermarket checkout. Even Obama smoked and we all know Bill inhaled..
Criminalization isn’t a solution, so let’s learn from the Dutch approach. Or the American prohibition on alcohol, or any of the other failed instances of enforced abstinence. What is needed is tolerance, and I’ll smoke one to that.