by Amalia Mobley
Amsterdam is a different universe. Throughout my voyage to experience as many different kinds of cities during my last semester abroad, Amsterdam stands out. It’s an extremely progressive city within an extremely progressive country, where things like prostitution are legal. There is one legal product that stands out above the rest: marijuana. The marijuana industry makes it a top destination for college students on their semesters abroad in Europe; while I was there, I definitely saw many young people, but I also saw a handful of older couples looking to try it for the first time. But how do you go about getting your hands on some herb in the first place?

The impact of a free marijuana industry

The city’s dispensaries are called “coffeeshops”, which can sometimes lead to wrong search results if you google “coffeeshops near me” while in Amsterdam. Dispensaries can sell you grams of whatever strains of weed they have available, along with rolling papers, lighters, and grinders, but can also sell you hash, pre-rolled joints, and edibles. Coffeeshops frequently also have chairs and tables and serve non-alcoholic drinks, so it serves as an actual coffeeshop, too. Above all else, each coffeeshop has its own aesthetic: though most coffeeshops want to go for a chill-out lounge atmosphere, each has its own unique way of doing it. Some have a modern/hip-hop style, with darker rooms and bassy music, while others go for more of a vintage/artsy style, with lots of plants and soft pop playing. Which coffeeshops you visit really depends on the kind of experience you want to have, and whatever you desire, you’ll be sure to find it in one of Amsterdams 200+ coffeeshops.

Here’s the kicker: the possession, sale, and use of non-medicinal drugs are technically illegal under Dutch law. So how is it that coffeeshops even exist? In short, Dutch society and government decided it would be unrealistic to have a completely drug-free country, and decided instead to regulate drug use and try to minimize the harm it causes: it’s tolerated if it’s also regulated. Drugs were then separated into two categories: soft and hard. Soft drugs are less addictive and cause less harm (hash, marijuana, etc.) while hard drugs are more addictive and could cause more harm (LSDs, amphetamines, etc.). Posession, sale, and use of soft drugs is tolerated and regulated, while the possession, sale, and use of hard drugs is suppressed, with more of a focus on treatment than prosecution for the latter.

Free society but not without control

How does this translate to your next trip to Amsterdam? Two things: you aren’t allowed to carry more than 5 grams, and you aren’t allowed to smoke on the streets. However, these rules are lax and for the most part unenforced. It’s very common to smell the good herb while walking the gorgeous streets of Amsterdam. Groups of youngsters will sit at the edge of one of the canals and pass a few joints between them, laughing and enjoying each other’s company.

This kind of calm pleasantness translates to almost everyone in the city, in fact. It may not be the only factor, but I definitely think that the drug tolerance and the frequency of coffeeshops in Amsterdam has an effect on citizens’ dispositions. Coming from New York City and seeing many kinds of cities, I found something I call the city face: stoic, stern, looking down, not really wanting to engage with anyone. It’s the face that separates the citizen from the tourist, the “us” from “them.” But in Amsterdam, I saw hardly anyone with city face. Nearly everyone’s face was pleasantly neutral, and was generally polite and pleasant when spoken to, a big departure from the indifference of NYC.

Maybe it’s the tolerance of many things that makes Amsterdam this way: the tolerance of sex workers, of same-sex marriage, racial and religious tolerance, drug tolerance. Maybe it’s this kind of tolerance that’s helped to dissolve the boundaries that separate “us” and “them”. And maybe, just maybe, the rest of the world could get on the same level of tolerance and do away with divisive boundaries altogether.