Much has changed in the Netherlands since I first traveled to Amsterdam in 2002 to work on the video crew at the High Times Cannabis Cup. Once the Promised Land for marijuana enthusiasts from all over the world, the city now feels a bit behind the times. Because while patrons in several U.S. states can buy up to an ounce of lab-tested, fully legal herb in a government-licensed store, the entire weed system—from cultivation to distribution—remains half in shadows in Holland. And lately things have been heading in the wrong direction.
For starters, the Dutch never “legalized” marijuana. Since the 1970s, they’ve simply “tolerated” possession of small amounts (up to five grams) and sale of same from a recognized coffeeshop. Commercial growing and transporting have always been a “don’t ask, don’t tell” proposition at best, meaning that even the most aboveboard coffeeshop owners are constantly forced to break the law just to run their businesses. And now, the bitter irony is that as the rest of the world moves toward tolerance and liberty, the Netherlands has been making life increasingly difficult for cannabis suppliers and consumers—using zoning laws to close dozens of locations in Amsterdam alone; and in more conservative parts of the country, banning foreigners from patronizing the shops.
Aside from being a total bummer, this creeping loss of freedom also represents a serious cautionary tale for America’s suddenly ascendant marijuana movement—namely that the political winds blow in two directions. In the Netherlands, for example, the recent anti-cannabis political environment comes not from any significant change in societal attitudes about the herb, but rather from the unrelated elections of conservative, religious and anti-immigration politicians who want to repress marijuana culture along with everything else they fear and misunderstand.
In the meantime, Amsterdam remains an amazing place to visit, whether you like to get high or not. Despite the recent closures, several hundred coffeeshops remain open and ready to serve you throughout the city, and unlike any-where in America (so far), you’re more than welcome to not just buy herb and hash, but to pull up a seat and get high. I’ve now been to Amsterdam at least 10 times (who’s counting?), and my favorite coffeeshops include two of the biggest and best known—Green House and Barney’s Uptown—though I also enjoy more intimate, quirky spots like Mellow Yellow (the city’s first coffeeshop, since 1972), De Dampkring and Resin.
If you want reasonably priced, extremely pot-friendly accommodations right in the heart of the city (and that’s not easy to find), check out the Get Luckyguesthouse, which overlooks the Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal) in the stylish Rembrandtplein neighborhood (named for the Dutch master). Or better yet, get a few friends together and rent a houseboat for a truly unique experience.
Worthwhile marijuana tourist spots include the Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum, which isn’t big but does an excellent job of representing the world’s most beneficial plant, and the Cannabis College, which often hosts fun social occasions. Or just rent a bicycle and plot out a coffeeshop crawl on your own. (Be sure to crisscross Vondelpark a few times; it’s a real stunner and one of the best places in the city to puff al fresco—just make sure you find a remote spot away from the crowds.)
As for that famous nightlife, I recommend starting the evening at one of the city’s centuries-old brown cafés, with pints of dark Dutch beer and a plate of aged Gouda cheese. From there, I love hanging out at a converted squat turned anarchist collective called OT301, which has a café with food and live music, a movie theater and a dance club (check out ping-pong night on Tuesdays). For hot jazz with no cover, try Café Alto, or head to the Melkweg for bigger acts in an herb-friendly environment. Or just wander along the canals taking in the amazing beauty of this free-spirited, wonderfully tolerant city.
From HOW TO SMOKE POT (PROPERLY): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High by David Bienenstock, published by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by David Bienenstock.
If you enjoyed this Freedom Leaf article, consider subscribing today!