It is no wonder that Amsterdam’s red lights, rich history, canals, festivals and architecture draw in 4.2 million tourists each year.
There is something to be said about the energy that excited my body as I left Shipol Airport and headed into the city center. The airport itself is one of the largest airports in the world, and its extensive shopping, bars and restaurants make it seem like a fusion of South Coast Plaza and John Wayne Airport.
Although the red light district and its surroundings draw in the majority of tourists’ curiosity, most of Amsterdam looks like the ideal European suburb. With its calm, cool weather and scenery, it is worthwhile to note that Amsterdam is one of the “greenest” cities in the world as well as one of the most cyclist-friendly.
I had the surprise of arriving in Amsterdam during their Gay Pride Festival, which made the already open and fun-loving city even more spectacular. There were rainbow flags lining the canals and beautiful couples dancing their way towards the city center. As the hour approached noon, the crowd began pouring in and almost every other store was blasting “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry. I was reminded of a cleaner, more liberal and better-structured version of San Francisco as I walked the streets, where most everyone spoke English. These avenues were lined with everything from pipe shops to stores toting jewelry and apparel from the far east, to bars, health food heavens, “frite” stands (best fries, ever) and especially with coffee shops in which smoking marijuana is legal.
This very liberal stance on drugs is what sets Amsterdam apart from the United States and most other countries. Many would argue that this must mean that the Amsterdammers are out of control or that there are high crime rates, but the truth is exactly the opposite.
Anybody who has seen Venice Beach as well as Amsterdam would agree that there are more homeless, crazies and criminals surrounding the former than in the latter, by far. In addition, the legality and availability of the substances in Amsterdam allow people who choose to use them to understand what they are getting themselves into and therefore to take full responsibility for their choices. The same cannot be said for the overly eager and curious 17-year-old kids sneaking around the dangerous parts of Los Angeles, searching for narcotics, only to get their hands on something that ends up poisoning or killing them.
That is not to say that everything is legal in Amsterdam. Only the substances that many people in America argue are “natural,” such as marijuana, certain types of mushrooms and various herbs that can be smoked or made into a calming tea that provide remedies for anything from aches to anxieties to infections, are allowed. You will not find substances such as cocaine, heroin or meth sold in stores. In fact, there appears to be a low demand for it, as well as no real problem of black market trafficking.
One could argue that in America, when marijuana is categorized in the same field as heroin and equally looked down upon by the government, it is no wonder many people, misinformed, resort to the latter. By contrast in Amsterdam, people can draw the line between the natural substances that are acceptable in moderation and the harmful substances that can be addicting or lethal after even one dose.
I went into one of these herb stores and was very surprised by the helpfulness and kindness of the employee who answered my questions. She brought out a binder with laminated pages that listed each of their products and their prices. In addition, there was another binder which gave detailed descriptions of each herb, seed, ‘shroom or plant, described what effect each had and explained what remedy it provided. It even allotted to each item ratings of visual, emotional or mental stimulation. I thanked her kindly and left with my own personal dose of happiness, which came in the form of a Rumi (a famous Sufi poet from the Middle East) calendar with beautiful images and quotes.
I did not choose to spend much time in any of the so-called infamous “coffee shops,” but did take a moment to peek into them. To my surprise, there was none of the insanity that the American government or “Reefer Madness,” a 1936 exploitation film about marijuana use, would have the general public believe takes place anywhere in which a joint is present. Instead, there were simply people, old and young, sitting and enjoying a cup of espresso and passing a joint as they conversed about the parade, their lives or anything you would hear discussed in a restaurant, lounge or bar here in the States. The coffee shops even hand out a marijuana menu along with their coffee menu, and some places even allow sampling before buying.
What makes Amsterdam stand out is the fact that it can allow these things and at the same time be a clean, safe, green, cyclist-friendly, gay-friendly, health-conscious, thriving European city. It goes to show that it is not important that “drugs” are available in the city’s center, but how the population views these drugs.
A good place to draw a comparison with is San Francisco, a place where many hippie-wannabes relocate to in order to relive their own illusion of what the 1960s were all about. Anybody who walks Haight street towards Golden Gate Park, which is where all of the 1960s hippie action took place, and where you can still find most of the stoners and pipe shops, will see kids as young as 14 holding signs that read “Help Us Get High” and dancing around to the music in their head while tripping on acid. These kids are clearly misinformed and are still holding on to the belief that the 1960s were so cool because everybody was high when really it was the need to get high and the pursuit of that high which led to the ugly end of the hippie trend in the late1960s.
Those in Amsterdam see marijuana as they see wine: a glass of wine is alright after dinner on some nights, maybe even two glasses at a dinner party, but a person who wakes up to a glass of wine may have a problem.
The kids in San Francisco are waking up and chasing a high, chasing their illusion of what being high means or makes them—a hippie, an open mind, a free soul—only to end up poor, addicted and empty. This pattern is rare among the population in Amsterdam, and I think that the obvious differences between a city in which many kids are chasing a high, and a country in which that “high” is legal, provides a lesson which everybody could learn from.