Thursday, 19 August 2010

Changing your mind again Amsterdam

For reasons that are unclear, the use of marijuana is illegal in the United Kingdom. Indeed, in a recent and personal decision the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, moved this drug from Class C to Class B. Since this change was made against all scientific advice, and was one factor that led to the resignation of the Chairman and several members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, I can only view Gordon’s decision as stupidity, personal prejudice, playing to the voters or all three. It is interesting that in other countries where cannabis and other drugs have been legalized or decriminalized, drug use and crime generally has fallen (see for example…

In the Nederlands, marijuana lives in a kind of legal limbo land. Gedoogbeleid (a tolerance policy) is the name given to the decision not to apply the law to the possession of small quantities of cannabis (5 grams or 5 plants). Thus, there is a de facto legalization and tolerance of marijuana use in Holland. Amsterdam is the centre of a thriving marijuana industry that includes the ‘coffee shops’ (which sell coffee and marijuana and should not be confused with cafes), paraphernalia, seeds and a whole variety of other marijuana-based businesses. Under Gedoogbeleid all of these operate as open and quasi-legal businesses which together are worth an estimated two billion pounds a year to the Dutch economy. Recent moves to prevent access by foreigners to coffee shops in border cities such as Maastricht await a judgment from the European Court concerning the legality of having one rule for the Dutch and another for other European nationals. What better time then to pay a visit to Amsterdam and think about changing your mind?

Far be it from me to advocate that anyone breaks the law. However, if you want, a quick flight to Amsterdam allows you to openly sit and smoke dope. Most Amsterdam guides include a section of ‘coffee shops’ and others can be found on the web. It’s probably foolhardy to make a recommendation but La Tertulia (one of the oldest coffee shops) and Greenhouse (funky and high tech) offer experiences that are very different.

La Tertulia was set up at 312 Prisengracht in 1983 – it is a family business operated by mother and daughter. It occupies a quiet and pretty location and you can get a good cup of coffee and a nice toastie. It doesn’t have the widest selection of cannabis but if you want to relax and enjoy, it is a good place to start.


Greenhouse is very different; it is run by Arjan, the doyenne of the marijuana seed industry. As a result, there is a huge selection of different kinds of grass and hashish on offer. The music is loud and the place is thronged with younger customers. In both coffee shops the staff are helpful and pleasant. The customers seem to cause no trouble at all – indeed in a dozen visits to Amsterdam I have never come across any problems in the coffee shops – everyone is stoned and very, very well-behaved.

So how was it? Excellent. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what we smoked at La Tertulia – a feature of the drug – write it down or risk not remembering exactly what the thought that seemed so inspiring was! Fortunately, my camera recorded a few of the things I found interesting following our visit to 312 Prinsengracht.

And how was Greenhouse? Excellent. The staff there did everything they could to try to persuade the two respectable looking middle-aged English customers that confronted them from trying Amnesia Haze – too strong they said repeatedly which strangely became a powerful reason for trying some! Suffice it to say that it lived up to the promise of its name.

At the end of our long weekend, our opinions on Amsterdam coffee shops had changed very little. Peaceful and mostly harmless they offer an interesting counterpoint to the bars found in many English towns where abusive and violent drunks seem to enjoy themselves vomiting and falling over. One can only hope that here in the UK, as in America where the Obama administration appears to be taking a much more liberal and objective view of marijuana, our politicians wake up to the benefits of decriminalization. In the meantime, we will continue to make our way to Amsterdam to avoid the prohibition in the UK.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Changing your mind in Amsterdam

If you come from the rush and bustle of London or lead a life of stress and worry,  Amsterdam offers calm and peace. Alongside Paris, it is my favourite European Capital. The two cities are very different and when it comes to chill, calm and cool, Amsterdam wins hands-down.  A city of tall black bicycles ridden apparently without effort by tall, elegant, people most of whom seem to be young and stunningly beautiful.  It’s a city of water and tolerance where cafes and coffee shops sit amongst others that specialize in toothbrushes, pens or ink but not both.  Coffee and the latest strains of marijuana and sex are all equally available.  The residents don’t give a dam  - they are simply things that humans do. More practical than Venice but in many ways just as beautiful.

The dope offers a chance to change your mind for a while. But that isn’t what is at the top of my shopping list – it’s the water. Not the stuff of Amsterdam’s canals or the sea that front onto the tall brick houses whose front elevations lean back from the cobbled streets but rather the heavily-salted water of a flotation tank.

Amsterdam is the home of Koan Float one of the best places in Europe to experience floating free of gravity in perfect silence and then enjoy a massage. It’s located on Herengracht, the second in from the sea of Amsterdam’s horseshoe-shaped canals. Koan Float radiates calm and clean – not any kind of clean but rather Nederland’s clean. The staff wear immaculate white uniforms which one suspects they don after they have finished sweeping elegantly along the streets on their tall black bicycles. 

My wife and I appear there without a reservation and are greeted in English even before we speak. The Nederlanders don’t care what language they speak – this isn’t Paris – the Amsterdamers all appear to speak perfect English and to be happy to do so both to you and to one another. They move seamlessly and without prejudice from Dutch to French to English or German and back to Dutch – language here is about communication and in the same way that the French assert their ‘Frenchness’ through their language, the Amsterdamers assert their national characteristics of tolerance and practicality by not giving a damn what language they speak.

So, it turns out there isn’t a tank free at the moment. Could I come back at 7:15? One will be free then. Would Harry like a massage at the same time? Yes, she would. Have I floated before? Yes, here and in the UK. So, the appointment is made and we are back on Herengracht looking for lunch.

It turned out that Koan Float didn’t have a masseuse free at the allotted time so I turn up there on my own. I take a seat and leaf through a magazine. A woman in a white bathrobe passes by the entrance to the float rooms and a few minutes later one of the staff arrive to show me the way to my float-room.  The room is tiled, there is a shower in one corner but the bulk of the space is taken up by the tank. It looks like a shuttle from the USS Enterprise and its door is held open by two stainless steel gas springs. It looks huge.

I have been here before so I know the routine; undress, shower and apply Vaseline to any skin defect. Climb into the tank, sit down, memorise the positions of the light switches and the volume control for the sound system. I like to float in silence and in the dark. Crazy though it may seem, ear plugs or white noise are essential to prevent you being deafened by your own breathing. 

The first thing that strikes you is how hard it is to get your bum on the floor of the tank. The water is a very strong solution of Epsom Salts; it’s glass-clear and the whole tank glows an eerie green from the underwater lighting.  At first it feels as if some force field is preventing you from sitting down but soon you are stable enough to shut the door.  You turn off the lights and it isn’t dark, it’s black and totally silent. You lay back and give yourself to the water and it gives itself to you.  After a few minutes of surrender your muscle tone falls to zero, the air is at body temperature as is the water. A magic transformation occurs – though you know you are lying in a bath of warm salt solution it turns to a strange ether-like vapour. Your body has no border with the water and if you pick up a handful it trickles through your hand like a heavy gas – it is nothing like the water you know it to be. You no longer know you are floating – there is no water line, no distinction between air and water – you are weightless, floating in space. Only the occasional contact with the edge reminds you of the existence of the tank – otherwise it seems infinite and could be anywhere on earth or perhaps more likely, somewhere else. 

A few more minutes and you have completely surrendered your body to the fluid. Totally relaxed – no muscle tone is required.  The muscle tension dial is at zero – something you cannot experience anywhere else on earth. A remarkable thing happens; slowly your senses numbed by the barrage of input they receive on a daily basis begin to turn up the gain. All your sensory volume controls are at maximum but there is nothing much to sense. No sensation except, despite the earplugs, the distant roar of your own breathing and the thump of your heart beat. The edges of your world are dissolving – you are a needle in a compass floating in space.  There is no up, no down; no clues to where you begin or end. Yours eyes are open but you don’t see though the noise in your visual cortex creates patterns and random lights. 

I count my breath and concentrate on it leaving and entering my body – the air is etheric fluid. ‘My body’ becomes a doubt. Thoughts arise and I let them rise through the ether and bubble away. The mind is there but has no edges. There is no ‘I’ and it feels good to simply be a part of consciousness rather than something separate. 

The session lasts for about an hour though one’s sense of time is shot – it could be much longer or no time at all. A calm, quiet, voice comes through the ether – “It is time” – time for what? Time to get out of the tank.  A few minutes later some quiet music and then the lights come up in the tank.  I open the door, climb out and make my way to the shower.  I wash my hair, towel dry, don a white robe and go to the dressing room.  Soon I am dressed and in reception. Would I like another session? Oh yes, but I have to fly back tomorrow.

On Herengracht the evening light is beautiful. I am relaxed and all the aches and pains have gone from my body.  ‘I’ am alive but my ego knows that without the edges it provides, consciousness becomes the greatest gift and it is shared.  What am I scared of?