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.

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