The Elephant in the Room

There’s no way around it – people know Amsterdam for its prostitution and drugs. We learned that people used to interpret the 3 X’s of the Amsterdam emblem:

as floods, fires, and plagues. I think in the modern world it could be interpreted as drugs, sex, and parties. (Of course, we learned there’s a lot more to Amsterdam than that.)

I’m not here to say what’s right and wrong. I’m a believer that each country works differently. What may work in one region may not work in another. I’m not here to debate or convince anyone of any political agenda. Just simply to report my findings [cue pushing my glasses up on my face].

I think I should start at the basics. We learned that marijuana and other drugs are not as legal in Amsterdam as you might think. Shocking, right? Marijuana is considered, by the Dutch, a “soft drug” which means they allow it for personal use. But marijuana is still technically illegal (according to the Opium Act, which added marijuana to the list in the 50s). But this law isn’t enforced as long as it’s limited and controlled – no advertising sales, only 5 grams maximum per sale, no minors and so forth. The Dutch government even publicly announced in 1980 that it wouldn’t be prosecuting cannabis dealers. In fact, some “coffeeshops” (you have to be careful when you actually want a cup of coffee!) don’t even have menus out unless you personally ask for one. Plus, growing it in large quantities is still illegal so it’s just kind of swept under the rug how all these coffee shops get their supplies.

Amsterdam, shockingly enough, has actually been trying to decrease the number of coffeeshops and red light district store fronts in the last 20 years. They had 350 shops in the 90s and by the end of 2016 they will have around 160. And, they plan on closing half of those in the next 5 years as well (if you want to read more about it: We got an inside scoop from our tour guide who said apparently officials want more of a focus on the history and business of Amsterdam. They are definitely not concerned with tourism in The Netherlands, as they have 15 million tourists each year and just 17 million residents.

The root of the culture intrigues me. They are known to have the mentality: “You do you – just don’t bother me.” They are very pragmatic people and know that drug problems are going to exist whether or not there are laws. So instead of being in denial that this won’t happen, let’s control it and regulate it and get lots of taxes from it. Decriminalization decreases drug violence, and the Dutch have shown that it can be very effective. Our tour guide was telling us how much Amsterdam has changed since decriminalization, with areas that used to be unsafe and full of potentially violent drug dealers now perfectly safe and walkable, even at night. 

In America many people have an opposite opinion to this, which is funny to me because both sides see themselves as being the rational ones. For me, this crossroads forces me to think of the other side. 

On one side we have encounters with people that…make us question things. For example I give you a conversation at our hostel:

Girl 1: I’ve got to take like one good picture to send to my parents so they know I’m doing the safe stuff too.

Girl 2: Oh I know! I’ve got to send one to my Grandma. She’s curious.

Girl 1: Like I mean that’s why I brought sunglasses though for during the day you know?

Girl 2: Oh my gosh! That’s such a good idea! I should totally buy some too because I’ll definitely need them.

Feel free to say that conversation in your head in whatever accent you want but that’s just about verbatim. They actually did not party as hard as we thought they would but they did stay up all night screaming and laughing and pointing out “fat, ugly” chicks on their Facebook and trying to get into bed with guys. That’s a whole separate issue…

On the other side though, you have people using marijuana to relax just like one would use a glass of wine. Or using marijuana for medicinal purposes. Amsterdam hasn’t seen a rise in marijuana use since it has been legalized (study done comparing San Francisco and Amsterdam marijuana policies and users) and they actually have less percentage of users compared to the US. And even still we’re talking about people who represent a small amount (15% in the US and 5% in the Netherlands) of the population. 

I’m a total nerd though and my version of a party may just have included an evening with a glass of wine, debating with Zachary the percentage of people who drink alcohol on a regular basis (we had to define “regular basis” of course) and comparing it with international rates. When we party – we party hard and back it up with online statistical resources. 

Actually a lot of our time on this particular Europe trip has been about learning the history of the places and debating politics with each other and with people we meet. It has really been such an excellent learning experience that I have truly cherished. I’ll write more on that later!