Wander through Amsterdam and it’s hard to miss the coffee shops on every corner. Don’t be mistaken though, the Dutch aren’t obsessed with coffee (which I thought, as I wandered bemusedly from the coach station to my hostel). Clouds of herbal smoke flow from their open doors and people stumble out looking oddly relaxed. Though marijuana is illegal in Amsterdam, it’s no secret that many people go there to buy weed in these coffee shops and spend a few days wandering around the city in a weed-infused daze.
Drugs have always been a tourist draw in Amsterdam, but earlier in the year the government proposed to ban tourists from entering coffee shops. They intended to introduce ‘weed passes’ which could only be issued to residents, and which would limit the number of people who could go to coffee shops. After receiving heavy opposition from locals, tourists and the coffee shops alike, these proposed plans are no longer going ahead (much to the delight of stoners everywhere). For the time being the authorities will continue to turn a blind eye to small amounts of weed (as long as you don’t act like a stoned prat) and if you’re relatively subtle in your usage. Having said that, a common dare among tourists is to get a policeman to light your spliff.
The authority’s seemingly nonchalant attitude to cannabis stems back to a time when hard drugs were prevalent in the city. What is now Chinatown was (not quite) lovingly named ‘Heroin Alley’. Policemen would refuse to go anywhere near it for fear of being attacked by psychotic drug users, and the area was seen as a ‘no-go’ zone. To combat the problem the council introduced coffee shops, which allowed for the consumption of marijuana, a ‘soft’ drug, whilst fighting a war against harder drugs.
However, though many stoners will be delighting over the decision, the forecast is not looking good for coffee shops. The government is cutting down on their presence by refusing to hand out the licenses which allow them to sell weed. At the same time, coffee shops are being shut down on an increasingly regular basis. The industry is declining fast, and it is estimated that within a few decades there will be no active coffee shops in Amsterdam.
If you’re in Amsterdam and fancy learning more about marijuana, I’d recommend popping along to the Cannabis College (not an actual college, shock horror), an organisation which aims to educate the masses about (yep, you’ve guessed it) cannabis. I found myself there this summer, and for 20 minutes a very chatty Scottish man lectured a group of us about the ins and outs of weed, before bombarding us with leaflets detailing the science behind it. I’m an English student so had no idea what he was on about, but my travel buddy studies science and she seemed quite interested. I also suspect that he was quite stoned, so I don’t even know if he knew what he was talking about.
Oh, and if you’re a coffee addict like me, do not fear. There are hundreds of nice little shops in Amsterdam which actually sell coffee, but they tend to be advertised as ‘cafes’. If you’re liable to get confused easily it might just be safest to stick with Starbucks.
Photo courtesy of Enric Martinez