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Spider's Online Diary

1 December, 2001--Impressions of Amsterdam after the 2001 Cannabis Cup:

Amsterdammed if we do? Sounds good to me...
Spider Robinson

(The following article appears in the TRAVEL section (for a change) of the Globe and Mail, Saturday 1 December 2001.)

© 2001 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.

I've just had a glimpse of the a city that was old long before Europeans settled in North America. At the 2001 Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, I acquired some sense of what decriminalization of pot might one day mean for us here in Canada. And was reassured.

Signs and portents suggest this may be marijuana's magic millennium. Bill C-344, sponsored by Alliance MP Keith Martin (a most interesting man, a former corrections officer and ER physician) would replace criminal penalties for personal use with civil fines. Over 200 MPs have expressed support, as have the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs, the Canadian Medical Association, the Council of Churches and, depending on who's doing the polling, anywhere from 47 to 74 percent of the Canadian public. The federal government's presently growing its own stone in a Manitoba mineshaft; a Ministry of Medical Marijuana seems inevitable.

It's in the air. Italy and Spain already handle cannabis possession with fines. This summer, Portugal startled Europe by decriminalizing personal amounts of any drug. A month later, Britain declared its intention to decriminalize pot, and is presently going forward despite some resistance. Eleven states have already legalized medical marijuana in defiance of the US government. And there's Holland, where as everyone knows, the weed is perfectly legal, smoked openly--

--WRONG. Whatever you've heard, smoking grass in public is not legal or polite in Amsterdam, or anywhere in the Netherlands. If you light a joint on a crowded street (all Amsterdam streets are crowded), you may not do time...but passersby will probably glare, may berate you, and the police might haul you before a magistrate for a stern lecture and a stinging fine.

But anywhere in the city, you're within walking distance of one or more of the famous coffeeshops, within which you may legally and safely consume as much as you like of the world's very finest marijuana or hashish. And purchase up to 5g to go, if you're discreet about where you smoke it. Or you can avoid smoking altogether: I saw dozens of edible pot products including (thoughtfully) throat lozenges.

Twenty-two coffeeshops participated in the 14th annual Cannabis Cup, sponsored as always by High Times magazine and 420Tours [;]. So did over a dozen "seed companies," competing to do with cannabis what Gates did with computers, gain control of the basic software: the DNA of the best possible pot. Many firms exhibited pot-related products (grinders, pipes, growing gear), and countless purveyors of non-intoxicating items (hemp products, posters, music) also participated.

So did hundreds of potheads from all around the world.

Some came by day to the Pax Party House [Ferdinand Bolstraat 194] to see and hear charismatic counterculture icons of the millenium past--Paul Krassner, breathtakingly-audacious editor of The Realist in the 60s, and editor of the new book POT STORIES FOR THE SOUL; Stephen Gaskin, merry founder of the most successful spiritual community in North American history, The Farm, now in its fourth decade in Tennessee; his wife Ina May Gaskin, President of the International Midwives Association, who literally wrote the book on home-birth, SPIRITUAL MIDWIFERY.

Stephen and Spider Ina May and Jeanne

At least as many people came to the huge Milkweg hall [Lijnbaansgracht 234] each night for the music. Singers, rappers, musicians and DJs from eveywhere were headlined by well-known "stoner band" 311 and backstopped by the tireless house group, the Five Points Band. Easily a dozen people came to hear the British Columbia science fiction writer/folksinger the festival had apparently invited on the theory that this was 2001, and he was cheaper than an astronaut...

And of course, nearly everyone came for the weed. Attendees were given a "passport" and invited to have it stamped in each of the 22 participating coffeehouses--most of which had a house strain entered in competition. Celebrity judges got 11 different samples, identified only by number--indica for gentlemen; sativa for ladies--and spent the week ranking them in five categories (appearance, smell, taste, burn, strength). There were so many events and exhibits, I managed to visit only a few coffeehouses; I particularly enjoyed the Rokerij [Lange Leidsedwarsstraat 41], Barney's Breakfast Bar [Haarlemmerstraat 102], and the dreamy undersea motif of The Greenhouse [Oudezijds Voorburgwal 191], but for all I know others are even better.

But I hadn't come for the coffeehouses...or the music, or the notorious Red Light District, or even the ganja. I live in BC. I came to see Amsterdam.

I wanted to know what a city that tolerates pot and prostitution and considers junkies treatable sick people is like. I'd heard conflicting propaganda--it's paradise/it's seedy--and wanted to see for myself. There seems reason to believe Vancouver might adopt something like the Amsterdam model: both the mayor and the province are considering safe-injection sites, the police have recently begun to feel murdering prostitutes is a crime, and the BC Compassion Club [] provides medical marijuana to the sick with little harassment.

But what happens when a city goes that one step further, and tolerates marijuana clubs? Do the sidewalks fill with smiling tie-dyed zombies with the munchies? Does the quality of tourists you attract change, and if so, for better or worse? Do lenient laws encourage them to think "anything goes," and behave even more obnoxiously than Spring Breakers in the French Quarter of New Orleans? Do stoners start flooding in from neighboring countries--bringing along users or sellers of harder drugs, perhaps? Does the city's drug/crime problem get better or worse, net? Beyond that, what happens to its overall look, flavor, sensibility?

Amsterdam first stunned, then awed, and finally shamed me. I was born and raised in New York, and have visited every large city in the US and Canada: we have nothing on this continent that can touch it. Several centuries' headstart is no excuse.

I have never seen--rarely even imagined--a city so consistently beautiful and aesthetically aware, so proud of its public places and visibly supportive of its arts. The dominant architectural landmarks are vast museums, opera houses and theatres--all in active, vibrant use. One of our happiest afternoons was spent in the heavily-attended Van Gogh Museum [Paulus Potterstraat 7;], gaping at over 200 of his paintings, plus an extensive collection of other excellent 19th-century art for context. Another memorable afternoon was an utterly fascinating canal-boat tour of that city of 2,500 houseboats, and a leisurely stroll through the pristine Vondelpaark.

Jeanne at canal

Nor have I ever seen a city so clean and well-maintained, outside Disneyland. Brick buildings that were standing (below sea level!) when Henrijk Hudson sailed from Amsterdam are, today, in better average condition than most of the buildings in New York. Every streetlight works. I saw zero potholes, broken windows, spilled garbage, vandalism, graffitti, or abandoned cars. On the third evening, leaving our charming and comfortable canalside Quentin Hotel [Leidesekade 89; phone 3120-626-2187; around the corner from the lovely Leideseplein or "Plaza of Lights"], I spotted two grape-sized dog turds on the sidewalk. "Thank God! A flaw," I cried, pointing, and my American companions grinned. Returning later, we found someone had drawn chalk circles around the offending items, and what I presume was a stern admonition in Dutch.

I'd been told everyone in Amsterdam spoke English. I was pleasantly surprised to learn they enjoy doing so.

What confused me most, though, was what I couldn't find. In a seaport reknowned for brothels and bongs, I could not seem to detect one person who scared me. If there are bad neighborhoods, I missed them. I'm from the Bronx; I have pretty good streetsense. I did not spot one jonesing junkie. Not one pusher or dealer. No muggers, beggars, thugs, dips, crackheads, posturing gangbangers, child hookers, dumpster divers, squeegee kids, winos, abandoned mental patients--no street people. I take that back: in a week of wandering I noticed one bag lady, camped inside the archway of the Opera House.

As I followed giggling crowds in and out of public places reeking of THC, I also watched to see what ordinary Amsterdammers thought of their coffeehouses -- and of us. Were they appalled by this annual swarm of beaming foreign dopers, ashamed of the thriving soft-drug industry that attracted us?

Not that I could see. Wearing a goofy grin and a large laminated badge identifying me as a Cannabis Cup participant, I never drew so much as a frown. Amsterdam didn't seem to notice us. We drew less attention than a comparable crowd of tourists leaving a wine-tasting festival, because none of us were staggering or acting belligerently. They simply threaded their nimble way through us, by foot, bike, tram or car; if we smiled, they smiled back. And we always smiled...

I'll never forget the well-cherished beauty of Amsterdam, the universal civility, kindness and tolerance of its people, or the good sense of its City Council. Back home again, as I drove past the edge of the horrid open sore that is Vancouver's downtown eastside, I decided any way at all in which this city becomes more like Amsterdam will be a long overdue improvement.


The winners of the 2001 Cannabis Cup:

BEST COFFEESHOP: Greenhouse [Tolstraat 91]
BEST INDICA: Sagarmatha Seeds [Marnixstraat 256]
BEST SATIVA: Homegrown Fantaseeds [Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 87a]
BEST HASHISH: Crystal Clear/Katsu [1e van der Helstraat 70]
CANNABIS CUP: Sweettooth/Barney's [Haarlemmerstraat 64]
BEST BOOTH: Sensi Seeds [Oudezijds Voorburgwal150]
BEST PRODUCT: metal grinder/Sweetleaf Grinders
BEST HEMP PRODUCT: Hemp Chocolate/Hemperium


Coffeeshops and seed companies not cited above:

Abraxas - J. Roelensteeg 12-14
Blue Bird - St. Antoniesbreestraat 71
Blue Velvet - Haarlemmerstraat 64
The Bushdocter - Thorbeckeplein 28 {NOT A TYPO -- "BUSHDOCTER"}
Dampkring - Handboogstraat 29
The Dolphins - Kerkstraat 39
Dutch Flowers - Singel 387
Grey Area - Oude Leliestraat 2
El Guapo - Nieuwe Nieuwstraat 32
De Kuil Cafe - Oudebrugsteeg 27
The Noon - Zeseniskade 22
Paradox - 1e Bloemdwarsstraat
Rusland - Rusland 16
Siberie - Brouwersgracht 11
Seeds of Passion - Utrechtsestraat 26
Flying Dutchmen - Oudezijds Achterburgwal 131
Nirvana - Toldwarsstraat 24
The Hash Marijuana Hemp Museum - Oudezijds Achterburgwal 148