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A Coffeeshop Conversation in Amsterdam

Coffeeshop marijuana counter, Amsterdam, Netherlands
In Holland's many "coffeeshops," the menu reads like a drug bust.
By Rick Steves

While Amsterdam has long been famous for its nicotine-stained "brown cafés," these days "coffeeshop" refers to a place where the Dutch gather to buy and smoke marijuana. While hard drugs are strictly illegal and there seems to be no interest in making them legal, marijuana is sold openly in coffeeshops throughout the Netherlands.

Wandering around Amsterdam, every few blocks you pass a window full of plants and displaying a red, yellow, and green Rastafarian flag — both indications that that coffee shop doesn't sell much coffee. I ducked into the Grey Area Coffeeshop near the Anne Frank House.

A round table at the front window was filled with a United Nations of tourists sharing travelers' tales stirred by swizzlesticks of smoke. The table was a clutter of tea cups, maps, and guidebooks. From the looks of the ashtray, they'd been there a while.

Taking a seat at the bar next to a leathery forty-something biker and a Gen-X kid with two holes in his body for each one in mine; I felt more like a tourist than I had all day. The bartender, sporting a shaved head and a one-inch goatee, greeted me in English and passed me the menu.

I pointed to a clipped-on scrap of paper. "What's 'Aanbieding: Swarte Marok?'"

"Today's special is Black Moroccan," he said.

Swarte Marok, Blond Marok, White Widow, Northern Light, Stonehedge, Grasstasy…so many choices, and that's just the wiet (marijuana). Hashish selections filled the bottom of the menu.

Above me dangled a tiny Starship Enterprise from a garland of spiky leaves. And behind the bartender stood a row of much-used and apparently never-cleaned bongs reminding me of the hubbly-bubblies that litter Egyptian teahouses. With a flick of my finger, I set the Enterprise rocking. The bartender said, "Access to the stars. That's us."

When I marveled how open-minded the Dutch are, the bartender explained, "We're not open-minded, just tolerant. There's a difference. Wiet is not legal…only tolerated."

I asked, "Does this toleration cause a problem?"

Handing a two-foot-tall bong and a tiny baggie of leaves to a woman with a huge dog tied to the bike rack outside, he said, "My grandmother has a pipe rack. It has a sign: ‘A satisfied smoker creates no problems.'"

"That was tobacco, wasn't it?"

"Yes, it's from the 1860s. But this still applies today."

I asked the guy with all the holes why he smokes here.

Speaking through the silver stud in his tongue, he said, "Some young people hang out at coffeeshops because their parents don't want them smoking pot at home. I smoke with my parents but come here for the coffeeshop ambience."

The older guy in leather laughed. "Yeah, ambience with a shaved head," he said, as the bartender handed him his baggie-to-go.

Alone with the younger guy, I asked about the sign with a delivery boy on it.

"In Holland we have pot delivery services," he explained, "like you have pizza delivery in America. Older people take out or have it delivered."

A middle-aged woman hurried in and said, "Yellow Cab, please."

She presented the bartender with a small, stickered card. "Buy twelve, get one free," he explained to me, and handed her a baggie saying, "I cut you a fat bag."

With a "Dank U wel, Peter," she tossed it into her shopping tote and hurried out.

"This coffeeshop would never be possible in the United States," I said.

"I know," Peter, the bartender, agreed. He showed me snapshots of Woody Harrelson and Willy Nelson, each in this obscure little coffeeshop, and continued. "America's two most famous pot smokers told me all about America."

The kid chimed in. "Hollanders — even those who don't smoke — they believe soft drugs…you know, pot, hash…it shouldn't be a crime."

"What do your parents think?" I asked.

"They think the youth have a problem. My dad says, ‘Holland will get the bill later on.'"

"And other countries…doesn't legal pot in Holland cause them a problem?" I asked.

"Actually, it's not legal here," he reminded me, "just tolerated. Officially, we can't legalize anything because of all these world treaties."

"The French complain about Holland's popularity with drug users, but they have a worse problem with illegal drugs," Peter added. "Here, the police know just what's going on and where."

"But what about hard drugs?"

"These are the problem. Europe comes to Holland for more than the pot. Most Dutch agree that these hard drugs should be illegal. We Dutch — I think because pot is tolerated — handle our drugs better than the kids who travel here to get high. But, like everywhere, we have a hard drug problem."

Peter points to a chart on the wall that shows how to avoid bad XTC pills. "The police give us this chart. My English friends cannot believe they help in this way. They call our Politie the ‘polite-ies.'

"You don't see the Dutch dying from heroin overdoses," Peter continued. "But every time I read the newspaper it seems another German is found dead on the floor of a cheap Amsterdam hotel room.

"But pot," he said, fingering a perfectly rolled joint, "this is not a problem."

"American prisons are filled with pot offenders," I said.

"Take your choice," he said. "Allow for alternative ways of living or build more prisons. Here in Holland, pot is like cigarettes. We smoke it. We pay taxes. We don't go to jail."