Amsterdam Smoked Out

Brecht Evens

The Dutch capital is a city of contradictions, none more notorious than its official-unofficial tolerance of cannabis. Why is marijuana such a resilient touristic cliché even though the locals hardly smoke anymore and Amsterdam has so much else to offer?

The Dutch historian Ruth Oldenziel lingers over a cup of coffee on a rainy Saturday morning in Amsterdam at De Ysbreeker, a café and restaurant in the Weesperzijde neighborhood with roots that stretch back to 1702. She is discussing the arc of the city’s status as a liberal bastion and a pot smoker’s destination through the years. “I think a lot of tourists come for the image of the 1970s that’s really not here,” she says.

A native Amsterdammer and a Yale-educated professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology, Oldenziel remembers the ’60s and ’70s, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged their week-long “Bed-In” against the Vietnam War at the Amsterdam Hilton. She remembers when the “flower-power bus,” full of free spirits in colorful garments, made runs from the city’s Museumplein to Afghanistan. She remembers when marijuana was a cultural token for many of the city’s intellectuals and not just a tourist attraction.

In recent decades, though, many artists have been priced out of Amsterdam, the government continues to slash cultural funding and the city’s squatter movement has run its course. And yet in the air above this tony, cobblestoned city of posh bike riders (see “Amsterdam by Bike,” following page), the ’60s and ’70s still hang around like ghosts wafting in the clouds of OG Kush smoke blown from tourists’ lips. Of the six million travelers who pass through each year, 35 percent visit a “coffeeshop,” where the sale of cannabis is tolerated, according to a survey published in 2012 by the Amsterdam Tourism and Convention Board. “It’s unbelievable,” says Oldenziel, whose partner owns a bed-and-breakfast. “You have totally bourgeois middle-class people who come for the weekend. And they’re not doing just the museums but also getting drugs. We look at it and find it a little passé, really.”

But as legal grass becomes increasingly normal in America, the idea of traveling to Amsterdam to smoke dope is quickly becoming passé for the American traveler, too. Less than a year after Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana, some form of legislation to decriminalize or legalize it for recreational or medical use may be on the table in more than half of the 50 states. And the American offering is often better than what you get in the Netherlands: The United States has better farmland and a more honest, service-oriented approach to selling cannabis and the experience around smoking it.

Forget the diminutive Amsterdam storefront crowded with hostel itinerants, droopy-eyed from taking one bong hit after another. Bring on the chauffeured stretch limo making a round of the best weed shops in the Mile High City. (It exists. It’s called “Colorado Rocky Mountain High Tours.”)

That said, Amsterdam has been a destination for centuries, and so it will remain for centuries hence. And as America follows in Holland’s footsteps, getting hip to Dutch culture is more profitable than ever—fodder for a deeper kind of travel that sends us home with a more complete understanding of ourselves and not just sticky ash at the bottom of our coat pockets. The Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk Museum and Van Gogh Museum, all of which have been renovated in the last two years, have long been an unreplicable triple threat at the heart of the city. And given the far-flung mercantile history of the Dutch, nobody eats, drinks or stages a market quite like them. With the increasing banality of smoking marijuana in public, the city of Amsterdam is, in itself, at last the best reason for a visit.

Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City (Doubleday), published last fall by the American author Russell Shorto, frames Amsterdam as a place that has always operated in the space between contradictions. The city would scarcely exist, Shorto argues, if northern­ European farmers hadn’t been determined centuries ago to find the gray area between land and water. Much of Holland and most of Amsterdam are reclaimed from the sea. This alchemy took backbreaking work and a community ethic. From the beginning, there was a bias in Amsterdam toward collectivism, because keeping the water at bay required all hands. A precondition for the city’s existence, this emphasis on community shaped Amsterdam, starting in the Middle Ages, into one of the most progressive places on earth.

But for those who follow Dutch politics, tagging Amsterdam as the most liberal city in the world today is a harder sell. Recent years have seen the ascendance of the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders and new rules that increasingly restrict the sale of pot, like the Weed Pass, a short-lived membership card system that kept foreigners out of shops in the southern provinces. These measures haven’t kept tourists out of Amsterdam’s coffeeshops, but new ordinances in the city prohibiting the sale of marijuana within a 250-meter radius of schoolhouses have closed a couple of shops. The “most liberal city” is becoming more conservative.

“The liberalism we associate with market capitalism is very much in the DNA of this city,” Oldenziel says. “You can see it in religion, you can see it in prostitution, you can see it in drugs. The word ‘gedogen’ is very important.” Gedogen is one of those European terms that natives boast can’t be translated. It comes from the Dutch legal lexicon and lands somewhere between the English “condone” and “tolerate,” without the positive undertones of the former or the negative implications of the latter. That’s to say, selling weed in the city isn’t legal, but it’s unofficially permitted and heavily regulated—just like prostitution before it was legalized and the schuilkerken, hidden churches of Catholics and other religious minorities that were peppered throughout the city in the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s a legal gymnastics designed to satisfy the maximum number of people.

Bob Vink, a criminal defense attorney with many clients connected to the coffeeshop world and the Dutch drug trade, appreciates his country’s liberal stance on marijuana as a father with five sons but sees its major shortcomings as a lawyer. His firm occupies a thousand square feet next to his home, an old workshop and warehouse near Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter. “As a participant in this society, I think the fact that we skip the taboo of marijuana makes it quite easy to speak about it with our kids,” Vink says. But coffeeshop owners, he explains, “can only buy from the black market, so they have to deal with obscure sources and dangerous situations, which makes people very, very, very nervous. That’s one of the most outrageous situations in this policy.”

The irony is that Amsterdammers don’t really smoke. The availability of weed in Holland is less a statement about the position of drugs in society and more a symptom of an attitude that favors free but regulated trade. Sitting in his office just off Kalverstraat, the city’s old shopping boulevard downtown, Amsterdam Museum director Paul Spies tells a story about the time he set up a business meeting at a coffeeshop on Herengracht. “I said, ‘I’d like to have two coffees,’ and they looked at me like, ‘Where are you from? This is a coffeeshop,’” he remembers. “This happened to me, a born Amsterdammer.”

Spies makes a point about how unimportant coffeeshops and the soft drug trade are to the city and the locals living there. “The mainstream is people working hard to make themselves a living for their family life, and all around them is this very colorful, very open-minded fringe,” he says. “And the fringe is what is mostly seen by people from outside.” You could draw an analogy to American gun enthusiasts, who make a more exciting impression on any foreigner than do Americans who are enthusiastic about something less violent.

Another morning in Amsterdam, Tahira Lmon, a spokeswoman for the city, is sitting in a café—nothing to do with weed, just a place that sells coffee—on Waterlooplein. Out on the street, vendors offering carpets and antiques are setting up their stands for the daily flea market. “Sometimes outsiders see the idea of liberalism in Amsterdam and think that anything goes,” she says. “That’s not the case.”