Pubdate: Sat, 01 Dec 2001
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2001, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Spider Robinson
KEEP ON THE GRASS
Despite, Or Maybe Because Of, Coffee Shops Where Marijuana Consumption Is
Both Safe And Legal, Amsterdam Remains A Clean, Attractive And Cultured
City. Vancouver Sci-Fi Novelist Spider Robinson Discovers A Future That Works
I've just had a glimpse of the future . . . in a city that was old long
before Europeans settled in North America. At the 2001 Cannabis Cup in
Amsterdam last week, I acquired some sense of what decriminalization of pot
might one day mean for us here in Canada. And was reassured.
Signs and portents suggest this may be marijuana's magic millennium. Bill
C-344, sponsored by Canadian Alliance MP Keith Martin ( a most interesting
man, a former corrections officer and emergency room physician ) would
replace criminal penalties for personal use with civil fines. More than 200
MPs have expressed support, as have the Canadian Association of Police
Chiefs, the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Council of Churches
and, depending on who's doing the polling, anywhere from 47 to 74 percent
of the Canadian public. The federal government is currently growing its own
stone in a Manitoba mineshaft; a Ministry of Medical Marijuana seems
It's in the air. Italy and Spain already handle cannabis possession with
fines. This summer, Portugal startled Europe by decriminalizing personal
amounts of any drug. A month later, Britain declared its intention to
decriminalize pot, and is currently going forward despite some resistance.
Eleven states have already legalized medical marijuana in defiance of the
U.S. government. And there's Holland, where as everyone knows, the weed is
perfectly legal, smoked openly -- Wrong.
Whatever you've heard, smoking grass in public is not legal or polite in
Amsterdam, or anywhere in the Netherlands. If you light a joint on a
crowded street ( all Amsterdam streets are crowded ), you may not do time . .
. but passersby will probably glare, may berate you, and the police might
haul you before a magistrate for a stern lecture and a stinging fine.
But anywhere in the city, you're within walking distance of one or more of
the famous coffee shops, within which you may legally and safely consume as
much as you like of the world's very finest marijuana or hashish.
And you are allowed to purchase up to five grams to go, if you're discreet
about where you smoke it. Or you can avoid smoking altogether: I saw dozens
of edible pot products, including ( thoughtfully ) throat lozenges.
Twenty-two coffee shops participated in the 14th annual Cannabis Cup,
sponsored by High Times magazine ( http://www.hightimes.com ) and 420Tours
( http://www.420tours.com ). So did more than a dozen "seed companies,"
competing to do with cannabis what Bill Gates did with computers, gain
control of the basic software: the DNA of the best possible pot. Many firms
exhibited pot-related products ( grinders, pipes, growing gear ), and
countless purveyors of non-intoxicating items ( hemp products, posters,
music ) also participated.
So did hundreds of potheads from all around the world. Some came by day to
the Pax Party House ( Ferdinand Bolstraat 194 ) to see and hear charismatic
counterculture icons of the millennium past -- Paul Krassner,
breathtakingly-audacious editor of The Realist in the sixties, and editor
of the new book Pot Stories for the Soul; Stephen Gaskin, merry founder of
the most successful spiritual community in North American history, the
Farm, now in its fourth decade in Tennessee; his wife, Ina May Gaskin,
president of the International Midwives Association, who literally wrote
the book on home birth, Spiritual Midwifery.
At least as many people came to the huge Melkweg hall ( Lijnbaansgracht
234a ) each night for the music. Singers, rappers, musicians and DJs from
everywhere were headlined by well-known "stoner band" 311 and backstopped
by the tireless house group, the Five Points Band. Easily a dozen people
came to hear the British Columbia science fiction writer/folksinger the
festival had apparently invited on the theory that this was 2001, and he
was cheaper than an astronaut.
And, of course, nearly everyone came for the weed. Attendees were given a
"passport" and invited to have it stamped in each of the 22 participating
coffee shops -- most of which had a house strain entered in competition.
Celebrity judges got 11 different samples, identified only by number --
indica for gentlemen; sativa for ladies -- and spent the week ranking them
in five categories ( appearance, smell, taste, burn, strength ). The
Vancouver outfit, Amsterdam Seed Co., came in second for best indica.
There were so many events and exhibits, I managed to visit only a few
coffee shops; I particularly enjoyed De Rokerij ( Lange Leidsedwarsstraat
41 ), Barney's Breakfast Bar ( Haarlemmerstraat 102 ), and the dreamy undersea
motif of the Greenhouse Centrum ( Oudezijds Voorburgwal 191 ), but for all I
know others are even better.
But I hadn't come for the coffee shops . . . or the music, or the notorious
Red Light District, or even the ganja. I live in B.C. I came to see Amsterdam.
I wanted to know what a city that tolerates pot and prostitution and
considers junkies treatable sick people is like. I had heard conflicting
propaganda -- it's paradise/it's seedy -- and wanted to see for myself.
There seems reason to believe Vancouver might adopt something like the
Amsterdam model: Both the mayor and the province are considering
safe-injection sites, the police have recently begun to feel murdering
prostitutes is a crime, and the BC Compassion Club Society
( http://www.thecompassionclub.org ) provides medical marijuana to the sick
with little harassment.
But what happens when a city goes that one step further, and tolerates
marijuana clubs? Do the sidewalks fill with smiling tie-dyed zombies with
the munchies? Does the quality of tourists you attract change, and if so,
for better or worse? Do lenient laws encourage them to think "anything
goes," and behave even more obnoxiously than Spring Breakers in the French
Quarter of New Orleans?
Do stoners start flooding in from neighbouring countries -- bringing along
users or sellers of harder drugs perhaps? Does the city's drug/crime
problem get better or worse, net? Beyond that, what happens to its overall
look, flavour, sensibility?
Amsterdam first stunned, then awed and finally shamed me. I was born and
raised in New York, and have visited every large city in the United States
and Canada: We have nothing on this continent that can touch it. Several
centuries' head start is no excuse. I have never seen -- rarely even
imagined -- a city so consistently beautiful and aesthetically aware, so
proud of its public places and supportive of its arts.
The dominant architectural landmarks are vast museums, opera houses and
theatres -- all in active, vibrant use. One of our happiest afternoons was
spent in the heavily attended Van Gogh Museum ( Paulus Potterstraat 7,
http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl ), gaping at more than 200 of his paintings,
plus an extensive collection of other excellent 19th-century art for context.
Another memorable afternoon was an utterly fascinating canal-boat tour of
that city of 2,500 houseboats, and a leisurely stroll through the pristine
Nor have I ever seen a city so clean and well-maintained, outside
Disneyland. Brick buildings that were standing ( below sea level! ) when
Henry Hudson sailed from Amsterdam are, today, in better average condition
than most of the buildings in New York. Every streetlight works.
I saw zero potholes, broken windows, spilled garbage, vandalism, graffiti,
or abandoned cars.
On the third evening, leaving our charming and comfortable canal-side
Quentin Hotel ( Leidesekade 89; phone 3120-626-2187; around the corner from
the lovely Leideseplein or "Plaza of Lights" ), I spotted two grape-sized
dog turds on the sidewalk.
"Thank God! A flaw," I cried, pointing, and my American companions grinned.
Returning later, we found someone had drawn chalk circles around the
offending items, and what I presume was a stern admonition in Dutch.
I had been told that everyone in Amsterdam spoke English. I was pleasantly
surprised to learn they enjoy doing so.
What confused me most, though, was what I couldn't find. In a seaport
renowned for brothels and bongs, I could not seem to detect one person who
scared me. If there are bad neighbourhoods, I missed them. I'm from the
Bronx; I have pretty good street sense.I did not spot one jonesing junkie.
Not one pusher or dealer. No muggers, beggars, thugs, dips, crackheads,
posturing gangbangers, child hookers, dumpster divers, squeegee kids,
winos, abandoned mental patients -- no street people. I take that back: In
a week of wandering, I noticed one bag lady, camped inside the archway of
the Opera House.
As I followed giggling crowds in and out of public places reeking of THC, I
also watched to see what ordinary Amsterdammers thought of their coffee
shops -- and of us. Were they appalled by this annual swarm of beaming
foreign dopers, ashamed of the thriving soft-drug industry that attracted
us? Not that I could see.
Wearing a goofy grin and a large laminated badge identifying me as a
Cannabis Cup participant, I never drew so much as a frown. Amsterdam didn't
seem to notice us. We drew less attention than a comparable crowd of
tourists leaving a wine-tasting festival, because none of us was staggering
or acting belligerently. They simply threaded their nimble way through us,
by foot, bike, tram or car; if we smiled, they smiled back. And we always
smiled . . .
I'll never forget the well-cherished beauty of Amsterdam, the universal
civility, kindness and tolerance of its people, or the good sense of its
Back home again, as I drove past the edge of the horrid open sore that is
Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, I decided that any way at all in which this
city becomes more like Amsterdam will be a long overdue improvement.