Be cool with weed.
For several decades now, the use of cannabis in Nederland is gedoogd, or tolerated ie, not fully legalized. As of this writing, a private person may possess up to five grams, and may grow three plants at home. A place where you can buy weed in Amsterdam is called a ‘coffeeshop’.
I don’t smoke weed myself, so what I’m reciting here is just general knowledge picked up from my friends, including a few who have worked in coffeeshops. They tell me that even the mildest weed in Holland is stronger than weed elsewhere. And there are super-breeds with such high concentrations of THC that their status as a ‘soft’ drug may be debatable. So unless you’re a power user, they advise you to go easy on the stuff until you’re able to gauge its effect on you.
For the record, in the coffeeshop it is also possible to get coffee. Or tea, or juice, or soft drinks or Red Bull. They do not serve alcoholic anything. Different license.
Something a bit strange: the general tobacco smoking ban in bars, which came into effect in 2007, also applies in coffeeshops. Meaning that in a place where you're allowed to smoke a joint, you are not allowed to light up a cigarette. Some visitors find that a bit confounding.
Attitudes. As you can imagine, people living here are kinda put off by visitors who get too high too fast and pass out or act stupid. I guess the novelty wore off in the 1970s. In fact most Amsterdammers do not get high at all. But even those who don’t use the stuff tend to think it’s still nice that it’s available.
They do not think it’s cool if you light up a joint just anywhere, like walking in a crowded shopping street, or hanging around kids. They’d rather you do it at home, in the coffeeshop, or sitting out in the park with your fellows.
The Dutch verb for getting high is blowen. In some public areas you’ll see a sign saying blowverbod, specifying that you cannot legally smoke a joint there.
Many people do visit this city expressly to get high, and say they wouldn't bother coming here if they couldn't. The international 'Cannabis Cup' event is still held every November in Amsterdam. The weed business brings tourist business in with it.
And yet, the government is slowly trying to strangle the weed business. Nobody is entirely sure why.
The coffeeshop policy here is innately paradoxical. A coffeeshop is permitted to sell weed, but they are not allowed to buy it in sufficient quantity to do business. Meanwhile, growing enough weed to supply a coffeeshop is totally illegal. Every week you read about another wietplantage getting busted and shut down.
So the legal policy creates an industry that is half underground. The coffeeshop proprietor, in order to do what is legal, must do something illegal. And it’s been like this for many years. As far as I can tell, everyone thinks the situation is absurd, including the policymakers. But nobody can give me a sensible answer as to why the government cannot have one consistent policy on weed to either legalize it or ban it.
As near as I can understand, it’s because they’re stuck. The government does not feel one way about cannabis: it feels two ways.
Apparently they cannot totally legalize weed, because they’ve signed treaties with their EU neighbors saying they won’t. The more conservative political parties do want to simply outlaw weed. But at the same time, city policymakers realize that prohibition inevitably leads to more crime, and that abruptly shutting down all the coffeeshops would hurt the economy and shock a fair segment of the population. So they can’t do that either.
Instead, the Gemeente slowly and steadily work to discourage the trade. They are continually dreaming up new ways to put pressure on the weed industry, to make it more difficult and less profitable. There was recently a threat to impose the 'weed pass' on the city, which would have meant that only card-carrying residents would be permitted to buy at the coffeeshops. Last time I checked, that idea had gotten shot down. But they are imposing a new restriction that coffeeshops may not be located within a certain radius from a school building. Location alone will cause a lot of places to lose their licenses.
And gedoogbeleid, the ‘policy of putting up with’, works right into their hands. The soft drugs policy is just one example of selective enforcement; in many areas of life, everybody has broken some kind of rule, but the authorities don’t bother you with it until they want to mess with you. As the government’s attitudes shift regarding which business activities are smiled or frowned upon, the absence of consistent legal policy is their advantage: it gives politicians the power to quietly re-engineer society without ever appearing to take a stand on anything. It is not, per se, the rule of law. It’s the rule of not-quite-law. But it works for them.
The powers that be, for reasons of their own, are endeavoring to sanitize the public image of Amsterdam, by eroding the city’s association with soft drugs. The big brains looking at the big picture have decided, on our behalf, that a Disney Amsterdam will be better for all. And coolness be damned.
The Dutch have a word for this: vertrutting. The sense that your life is steadily being taken over by a stodgy old auntie.
Of course, regular Amsterdammers are appalled by all this. The spirit of Amsterdam has historically buoyed our sense of self-determination, our feeling that we are grown up enough to make our own choices. The more they regulate us, the less we feel we're still in Amsterdam. I do hold out hope that someday soon the politicians will get over themselves, and get back to the business of letting us be.