Amsterdam Feature

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Amsterdam's Infamous Weed Scene

Unless you're a regular user, checking out one of those euphemistically named venues where marijuana is sold is hard to justify from a "when in Rome" rationale. The coffee-shop industry caters mostly to travelers, and the Dutch are reported to smoke less pot than most other European populations. That said, if you do decide to indulge in Amsterdam's infamous weed scene, there are a few things you should know, especially concerning the new legislation that will allow only native Hollanders to "lite up." In point of fact, as of October 2012, this ban was voted down by Amsterdam's new Labor/Liberal government, so tourists and locals alike can continue to light up.

The Selection

Most coffee shops sell a robust selection of weed and hash, sold anywhere from €5 to €20 per gram. Don't hesitate to describe your dream high to the dealer, and he (or, rarely, she) will try to accommodate you.

Handling Your High

Be wary. Dutch-sold marijuana is potent and blows the socks off the most hardcore potheads. If cannabis is not your usual drug of choice, don't feel you have to play cool: ask questions of the staff and use caution whatever your medium—joint, bong, or brownie. If you do overindulge, try not to panic. Find a quiet place, take deep breaths, and remember that the discomfort will pass. Sometimes consuming something sweet will help to soften the high.

The Deal on Dealing

Amsterdam is home to an estimated 240 coffee shops, but statistics are looking grim for those who go gaga for ganja. An April 2007 law that prohibits the side-by-side sale of marijuana and alcohol has forced proprietors to dry out their bars to retain coffee shop licenses. What's more, since July 1, 2008, Amsterdam, like many other cities, has become smoke free. Smoking tobacco is banned from interior public spaces, including coffee shops, and is only allowed in designated smoking areas. Confusingly for visitors and locals alike, it is legal to smoke a pure joint (rolled with just weed or hash) in a coffee shop, but not in bars, restaurants, and clubs. Currently, it's acceptable to sell small amounts of marijuana via the "front door" of a coffee shop where the customer enters. However, the "back door" through which the product arrives is linked to the illegal world of the mysterious wholesale supplier. Technically, selling marijuana is officially prohibited, but the government has barely bothered to enforce this legislation—the buzzword here is "decriminalized." Thanks to the Dutch Opium Act of 1976, an important distinction is made between hard drugs and soft drugs—weed being soft.

Staying Legal

Throughout 2011 and 2012, a movement was afoot to require a membership card, or "wietpas," for tourists wishing to partake of the offerings of Amsterdam's famed coffee shops—anything and everything from marijuana to hashish ang ganga cookies—that law was voted down in 2012. Happily, things will stay as they are and tourists will keep the same rights as the Dutch when it comes to lighting up.

Membership Cards

Being the only country in Europe with a rather laid-back attitude to soft drugs, however, means that Holland now gets a lot of "pot tourists" from other countries. This has led, disastrously in the border towns (near Amsterdam), to coffee shops the size of supermarkets (catering mostly for foreigners) and streets jammed with traffic. Locals started to complain. To end these problems the government came up with a brilliant plan, or so they thought: a membership card, or "wietpas" for coffee shops. This card, which would exclude tourists from coffee shops, was introduced in the border towns in 2012 as an experiment; the plan was that the rest of Holland would follow in 2013. But that is now history.

First of all, the experiment has not proved to be a success, as the wietpas seems to only increase illegal trade on the streets (which also involves hard drugs). Secondly, most other cities in Holland, such as Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Rotterdam, have always been against the plan. (In Amsterdam, the only things that have changed is that the area around schools has to be coffee shop–free—coffee shops within a 1,000 feet of a school have closed down—plus some coffee shops on the Wallen have closed only because they were in criminal hands.) And last but not least, in the meantime the Netherlands have gotten a new, and liberal, government, one that doesn't believe in the wietpas.

… or Not?

A spokeswoman of the mayor clearly stated to Fodor's: "Amsterdam will not introduce the wietpas." She went on to say that even if the government will go through with the new cannabis law (only time can tell), Amsterdam will fight it. And, in fact, it did. Thus things will stay as they are in Amsterdam (and the other major cities) and tourists will keep on having the same rights as the Dutch when it comes to lighting up. To check the latest on this amazing saga log onto Amsterdam's official website www.iamsterdam.com.

Updated: 11-2013

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