Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Going Dutch

Luc Sala 50 Jaaren

Ten years ago, during the waning days of the 20th Century, I traveled to Amsterdam with Al and Sun to celebrate the 50th birthday of Luc Sala, Amsterdam businessman, psychedelic visionary, candidate for the Euro Senate and provocative television producer. I was surprised to see so many canals--this city is rightly celebrated as the Venice of the North--and beautiful old buildings. People had recommended that I visit Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum to see the Rembrandts and Van Goghs but for me experiencing Amsterdam itself, especially at night, was worth a dozen museums. The city is compact and easy to navigate, bounded on the North by the River IJ (pronounced "eye") on which sits Central Station where trains, subways and trams converge. Central Station is near the site of the famous dam on the Amstal River that gave Amsterdam its name.

Centered on Central Station, a series of semi-circular canals of increasing radius cut the city into C-shaped ribbons full of churches, houses, shops, plazas, public buildings, the whole symmetric pattern criss-crossed with numerous bridges. The Dutch are as serious about their pleasures as their work--a nation of rational hedonists. Amsterdam has a boisterous night life and in the early morning hours groups of people can still be seen rushing about in the streets even in parts of the city far from the entertainment district.
Hub of city's transportation web

Coming from America which enforces a different brand of liberty than the Dutch, I was naturally curious about Amsterdam's legendary "coffee shops" where adults supposedly can purchase and consume marijuana and hashish without fear of arrest. A tourist newspaper published by the comedy club Boom Chicago gives the straight dope on Amsterdam's coffee shops here.

I wanted to tour as many coffee shops as possible to get a feeling for how people behaved when they could freely consume as much cannabis as they pleased. Alas, I only had 10 days to spend in Amsterdam and the city held out so many other temptations that I was only able to inspect one shop, The Blue Bird (thank you, Katerina Oetjens), on the edge of the Red Light district, where I bought a big chunk of hashish without being arrested. I was curious about the percentage of people who smoke marijuana in a nation where it's legal compared to the percentage of folks who smoke it in countries that pay cops to arrest you for smoking it. My first observation was that The Blue Bird in the afternoon was not particularly busy--people were not crowding into its doors to get high.

Luc Sala's birthday party was held in his TV studio and because of the delicacy of camera lenses, a strict no-smoking rule was enforced. Anyone who wanted to smoke, whether tobacco or marijuana, had to retreat to the stairwells of the narrow multistory building. To get some idea of the percentage of pot smokers among sophisticated Dutch adults I too went outside and toked up (for the sake of science) "the Dutch way", mixing tobacco and marijuana in the same joint. From this one-time survey I estimated that about 10% of the people at Luc's party smoked pot. The rest merrily chose to alter their consciousnesses with various ethyl alcohol concoctions while a surprisingly large number consumed bottled water and soft drinks.

To me it seemed that the percentage of people that smoke pot in Amsterdam is roughly the same as in the USA. By far the most popular intoxicant in the Venice of the North is ethyl alcohol. I shared my estimate with Luc Sala and he concurred. Most people in Amsterdam don't smoke pot, he surmised, because they consider it lower-class.

Here is a real paradox, it seems to me, for sociologists to ponder. The Dutch legalize pot and through taxation derive from it a considerable revenue. America criminalizes pot and spends billions on law enforcement and prisons. And the result: In both countries about the same percentage of people use marijuana.

Another paradox: I was talking to some young Americans about drugs and asked them what was the first drug they used. Marijuana, of course. Why marijuana? I asked. Why not beer or wine? Because you don't need an ID to buy pot.
Nick and Al wading in the NORTH SEA near THE HAGUE


Anonymous said...

Was there in o5 - nothing better...
got the royal treatment from Nexus and stayed in Dam Square, heart of the action.

Aubin said...

The dreadlocked purveyor at the Bluebird was forced to turn on the AC to try and clear out all the smoke from our visit in 2000. By far the best beer and liquor stores I've ever seen. So many exotic brands. But the best places seemed to be the church Oude Kerk and Madame Tousades wax museum.

kcb000 said...

I have lived here 4 years now, having come from San Francisco. And the most salient thing I have learned about the Dutch is that they are a PRACTICAL people.

They tolerate drugs, homosexuality and prostitution so long as it is profitable and doesn't cause too much harm.

As for the city's layout, it was originally a business process model in action. Ships would dock on the eastern side of the "U" where the warehouses to load unload cargo were. Next came the restocking streets like "Sailmaker". . The streets where named by function. Such as Barrel-maker etc. Then the banks. Continuing on up the west side of the "U" back towards the Ij river, were the bars and restaurants.

And finally where the eastern side of the "U" ended at the river came the "Red Light District" where sailors could part with rest of their money and then meet up with their restocked and reloaded vessels.

In short it's layout was a very PRACTICAL sort of factory line for processing ships, cargos, money and seamen ;-)