AMSTERDAM — If this is pot paradise, it might be worth taking another look at hell.
I hopped on a plane to the Netherlands last week expecting to have a grand time exploring this city’s world-famous coffeeshops, which since the 1970s have openly sold marijuana for on-site consumption.
The Dutch cannabis market essentially functions under a decriminalization framework: selling small quantities of weed isn’t exactly legal, but it also isn’t punishable. As long as the coffeeshops don’t advertise, disturb the peace, keep or sell too much marijuana, or sell to minors under 18, law enforcement looks the other way. Growing and distribution also are illegal, but operations supplying coffeeshops are typically tolerated. (Other “soft” drugs, such as psychedelic truffles, are sold under similar auspices at so-called “smart shops.”)
Beforehand, I pictured something like, well, a coffee shop — a cozy, welcoming place with warm lights and comfortable seating, perhaps populated by some chill, beautiful Dutch people sharing a joint on a couch in the corner.
Unfortunately, that was not the reality. Most coffeeshops I visited had more of a dive bar vibe, catering to a certain class of party-hungry tourists — the kind of people who dust off their passports specifically for the purpose of getting epically intoxicated.
So what’s it like when you walk in? Picture, if you will, a pack of rabidly straight Slovenian bachelor-party bros in their early 20s revving up for a walk through the Red Light District, during which they will disguise their mix of discomfort and boyish excitement by yelling lewd jokes about the sex workers and daring each other to hire one (they won’t) as they narrowly avoid stumbling into the canal. Loud, terrible music is thumping. The bros, already three to six drinks deep, are clumsily rolling joints as they sit around a table on uncomfortable wooden benches and eyeing newcomers suspiciously/menacingly, or else crowding into a phone-booth-like consumption area and hogging the stools for way too long. Everyone keeps to himself. Except for the staff, which is typically comprised of attractive young women (who stopped noticing the leering Slovenians months ago), the clientele is almost exclusively white men. I encountered precisely zero locals — everyone is from somewhere else.
So, no judgement or anything, but as regular readers have probably guessed by now, it wasn’t really my scene. (A notable exception: the Paradox coffee house was closer to my expectations of chillness. Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, some people say pot is too upscale.)
Coffee house menus in Amsterdam are dominated by what Americans call spliffs, or joints rolled with marijuana and tobacco. If you only want cannabis, you have to ask for a “pure” joint.
Ventilation was an afterthought at best (sorry, the Netherlands, a single ceiling fan doesn’t count), and open windows allowed significant quantities of smoke to drift onto the sidewalk. I don’t usually mind spending a little time in a room in which someone’s combusting marijuana, but some of the coffeeshops were an impenetrable haze of marijuana and tobacco smoke from dozens of burning joints. I felt genuinely concerned about the health of the workers, and slightly embarrassed about how badly I reeked after spending just a few minutes inside (how do you say “dry cleaner” in Dutch?).
The weed itself seemed fine — someone aptly described its effects as “friendly” — but I’ll leave it to tokers with better palettes to do detailed shootouts between Dutch and American strains. I should note, though, that in the absence of regulations and lab testing, there were no labels indicating the strength of a particular variety or certifying that it was pesticide-free. One coffeeshop worker pulled out a sharpie to mark the stronger of two otherwise indistinguishable joints sold in the same loose baggie.
Overall, the experience was somewhat uncomfortable, and helped me understand why many Dutch cities, especially in border regions, have banned foreign citizens from their coffeeshops.
Back home, Colorado’s governor just signed a bill allowing social consumption in that state, while the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission is preparing to vote this summer on draft regulations for a social consumption pilot program in a handful of cities and towns. And you know what? Despite all the problems I witnessed, I actually left Amsterdam feeling hopeful about social consumption in Massachusetts and the US in general.
For one thing, coffeeshops in Amsterdam simply aren’t a big deal to locals. They’re just there — the same as a bar, the same as a tourist shop selling “XXX” keychains. Parents and kids walked by without a second glance. It’s proof that, even poorly done, such facilities can be integrated into a community and become background noise in the hum of daily life.
Another reason I’m optimistic: the crummy aspects of Amsterdam’s marijuana market are in large part a function of its uniqueness and the lack of regulations.
The city is one of the only places in the world with a mature social consumption market that’s open to visitors. Presumably, the level of demand and the nature of the average consumer would change if countries across Europe allowed coffeeshops or their equivalent, and the coffeeshops in other Dutch cities are surely less bro-y. (Also, tourism dominates practically every aspect of the local economy, not just coffeeshops.)
And if the Netherlands would fully legalize and regulate marijuana, as Massachusetts has, officials could actually implement requirements around ventilation, ownership, and so on. Adopting “look the other way” as a policy is like taking your hands off the wheel and closing your eyes, instead of grabbing the wheel and driving the car to a destination you chose. Such systems inherently reward marginal operators with a high appetite for risk and, while they avoid the potential injustices of incarceration, do little to protect public health and consumer safety. The facilities in Amsterdam may not be wildly dangerous, but they’re certainly crying out for some common-sense regulations.
“A key part of the problem is that the [Dutch] system is one of tolerance, rather than a fully legal and regulated supply chain,” Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst for the UK-based Transform Drug Policy Foundation, told me this week. “The reforms began a pragmatic tolerance policy in the 70s to try and separate cannabis from markets for other more risky drugs. There was never a plan for a large scale regulated market, and it has evolved in a rather ad hoc fashion over the decades.”
(By the way, Rolles confirmed my conjecture that Dutch coffeeshops outside tourist areas “cater to locals and are less seedy and more appealing in many respects.”)
Meanwhile, marijuana prohibition elsewhere in Europe doesn’t seem much more effective than it is in the United States. Friendly waiters in Paris (my first stop) told us pot consumption is a staple of life in the service sector there, though hash is more common than flower, as it’s more potent and therefore easier to smuggle larger quantities. Police in Paris reportedly ignore personal possession and consumption for the most part. (Disclaimer: I didn’t test that theory and I’m not recommending anyone else do so.)
Rolles believes change is on the horizon when it comes to marijuana laws in Europe. But, he said, it’s actually unlikely that the Netherlands will lead the way.
“Dutch politicians openly acknowledge the paradox” of an illegal-but-tolerated marijuana market, he explained, and some are even pushing pilot projects to formally license cannabis growing and distribution.
However, “despite [the Netherlands’] reputation for social liberalism it is actually a surprisingly conservative country politically, and it will probably be another EU country — maybe Spain, Italy, Denmark, Luxembourg, or Czechia — that knocks over the first domino.”