Amsterdam’s Tolerant Culture

Amsterdam has a very tolerant culture.  During our walking tour of the city, Gabe and I learned more about the red light district and how a regulated and taxed sex industry can exist within a relatively clean and safe environment.  On a related topic, we also met tourists in Amsterdam who were concerned over a possible marijuana ban.  Although we are not included in this group, many travel to Amsterdam primarily (if not only) for its loose laws and drug availability.  As this seemed to be a pressing issue, I found a relevant article on BBC’s travel blog from a couple months back on April 8, 2011.

Travelwise: Marijuana tourism ban in Amsterdam?
By Suemedha Sood

This winter, the European Union gave Dutch authorities the power to ban coffee shops from selling cannabis to tourists. This decision by the European Court of Justice was prompted by a push from the right-leaning Dutch government. But the Netherlands have been threatening to make pot illegal for tourists for years. Could this ruling really change decades of policy?

Certainly not in Amsterdam, said Richard Cowan, an American and the CFO of the biotech company Cannabis Science Inc, who recently relocated there. “It will never work in Amsterdam. The police are opposed to it, because it would cause a big increase in poly-drug street dealing.”

In Amsterdam, the lord mayor, the city council, and (unsurprisingly) the tourist board all oppose the effort. In certain small border towns, Cowan says, it’s possible that authorities may enforce a ban, but only with local agreement.

Marijuana already lives in a legal grey area in the Netherlands. Although technically illegal, it has been “tolerated” for more than 30 years, allowing it to be taxed and sold in coffee shops all over the country. So, the question arises, how do you ban something that’s already illegal? And how do you ban it only for certain consumers?

Logistically, anti-cannabis activists would like to see a “weed passport” introduced that would prevent foreigners from visiting coffee shops that sell pot. But Mario Lap, a drug policy advisor and director of the Drugtext Foundation in the Netherlands, believes that even in border towns, banning marijuana sales to non-nationals would be “counterproductive”.

“What is crucial in this is that it cannot be forced upon towns that do not want it,” Lap explained. “The whole drug [and] coffee shop policy is based on decision-making by local government [entities] called triangle committees.”

From a legal perspective, Lap said this push by the federal government is more symbolic than it is substantive. “[I]t is intended to provide for a tough image in order to [convince] the ultra right wing party to tolerate the right wing minority government.”

With so many tourists visiting the Netherlands specifically for its culture of “tolerance”, cities like Amsterdam would stand to lose a lot from the enforcement of a selective ban. “Supposedly 10% of the tourism is exclusively for cannabis,” said Cowan. “Another 40% [of tourists] visit the coffee shops… [and] a lot of other places would be badly hurt. There are a lot of ‘souvenir’ shops that would go out of business…”

Allen St Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in the US, said there’s no pretence to cannabis tourism, either. He talks about “hash ferries” which bring people in from England, for instance. He also said that Dutch tourism organizations are closely following the situation surrounding marijuana in the US. If pot is legalized in California, Pierre says, Dutch businesses could lose American tourists during winter months.

Pierre pointed out that threats about cracking down on cannabis tourism are nothing new. According to NORML’s archives, he said, “The first time a Dutch government started making noises about tourists buying cannabis was in 1987. So this has been going on for more than 20 years.”

His feeling is that powerful Dutch businessmen will see to it that the lucrative marijuana industry will continue to thrive. “These men are rigid and they are not inclined to back down at all,” he said.

Legally, selective bans could raise fairness issues as well, since they not only discriminate against tourists but also foreigners living in the Netherlands. Cowan says this legal issue will be addressed when the Dutch Counsel of State rules on the constitutionality of the EU’s decision. “That ruling is due any day now,” he said.

Anne Frank

A couple week ago, I was introduced to Kinsey II, a replacement kindle. I ordered one, had it shipped home, and then my mom kindly forwarded it along to meet me in Rome. That said, I again have been able to easily access literature. While in Amsterdam, I know that I will be visiting the Anne Frank House, and decide to reread her diary. Below are several quotes that had strong impacts on me.

“Our freedom was severely restricted by a series of anti-Jewish decrees: Jews were required to wear a yellow star; Jews were required to turn in their bicycles; Jews were forbidden to use streetcars; Jews were forbidden to ride in cars, even their won; Jews were required to do their shopping between 3 and 5 PM; Jews were required to frequent only Jewish-owned barbershops and beauty parlors; Jews were forbidden to be out on the streets between 8 P.M. And 6 A.M.; Jews were forbidden to go to theaters, movies or any other forms of entertainment; Jews were forbidden to use swimming pools, tennis courts, hockey fields or any other athletic fields; Jews were forbidden to go rowing; Jews were forbidden to take part in any athletic activity in public; Jews were forbidden to sit in their gardens or those of their friends after 8 P.M.; Jews were forbidden to visit Christians in their homes; Jews were required to attend Jewish schools, etc. You couldn’t do this and you couldn’t do that, but life went on. Jacque always said to me, ‘I don’t dare do anything anymore, ’cause I’m afraid it’s not allowed.’”

“I’ve reached the point where I hardly care whether I live or die. The world will keep on turning without me, and I can’t do anything to change events anyway. I’ll just let matters take their course and concentrate on studying and hope that everything will be all right in the end.”

“The sun is shining, the sky is deep blue, there’s a magnificent breeze, and I’m longing—really longing—for everything: conversation, freedom, friends, being alone. I long … to cry! I feel as if I were about to explode. I know crying would help, but I can’t cry. I’m restless. I walk from one room to another, breathe through the crack in the window frame, feel my heart beating as if to say, ‘Fulfill my longing at last…’”

“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”

“I don’t think of all the misery but of all the beauty that still remains.”

“Is discord going to show itself while we are still fighting, is the Jew once again worth less than another? Oh, it is sad, very sad, that once more, for the umpteenth time, the old truth is confirmed: ‘What one Christian does is his own responsibility, what one Jew does is thrown back at all Jews.’”

The Anne Frank House is very well done. As we progress from room to room, there are exhibits on the walls that retell Anne’s story. Also on display is her original diary along with other writings from her time in hiding. The visit is a sobering experience, but one that is necessary.

We’re On A Boat

When in Amsterdam, Gabe and I find cheap accommodations on a boat called the Amicitia located on Oosterdok 3. Our room with two bunked beds is small but comfortable as long as we both aren’t standing at the same time. On one end of the narrow room is a round window about one foot in diameter, and when we look out, we realize that we are sleeping below sea level as the window is just above the water. Although the window is small, the view especially around sunset is beautiful and the sea breeze welcome. Luckily, the boat always remains docked and there is only little rocking. The location is central and the atmosphere unique. Our only regret is that we forgot nautical themed, pashmina afghans.

Boat window

A view of our boat

We are staying on the boat perpendicular to the others as seen in the center of the above photo.


Next stop is Amsterdam, one of the most important world ports back during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. Today, the city can still boast the oldest stock exchange in the world along with historic canals, many famous museums, a thriving red-light district, and cannabis coffee shops. However, more than anything, I will remember the city’s beautiful canals and architecture.

Amsterdam canal

The canals, a result of 17th century city planning, make four concentric semi-circles with open ends running into the bay. (Interesting fact: Their lack of stagnant water ensures that they do not stink up the city with foul odors.) However, despite the charm the canals provide to the city, they only set the stage for its diverse and historied architecture. The oldest building still standing, the Oude Kerk (or Old Church), was built in 1306. There are also samples of renaissance architecture from the 16th century, baroque architecture from the 17th century, and gothic architecture from the 19th century. That all said, my favorite architecture was that of 17th century residences built around the canals. These buildings are all very narrow, have elaborate front steps, and show off ornate gables. The gables have utilitarian purposes because the buildings are too thin for large staircases, thus making it almost impossible to move furniture up and down. Instead, the buildings use a hoist and pulley system to transport large items into the house, with the hoists attached to elaborate gables on top of colorful and embellished facades. These residences make up the familiar canal image people conjure up when imagining Amsterdam.

More from walking around Amsterdam

Amsterdam has more to offer than walking around and appreciating its beauty, thus Gabe and I sit down with Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, and the like and we decide what we are going to visit. Of the many museum options, Gabe and I decide to visit the Van Gogh museum, with its more than 200 paintings by Van Gogh along with many drawings and letters. Memorably, the exhibit creatively displayed Van Gogh’s famous bedroom painting next to a matching physical room. We spent an afternoon in the museum followed by some time soaking up sun and reading in a nearby park.