by Alexander Sumach
|olland is an old country. It has
been a tight urban reality for centuries. There are no wild animals bigger
than a squirrel and every tree has been deliberately planted by humans. A
great part of Holland has been tediously reclaimed, inch by inch, from the
seabed by diligent labour over the course of many generations. Those dikes
and windmills are not merely decorative – they actually pump water away
from the floor of the ocean to reveal sand that is then socially rendered
into gardening space.
Space, the final frontier, is at a premium in Holland. It is not wasted
like it is in Canada, which appears to be a blank space where only
inhabited. The Dutch have to earn their real estate the hard way. It’s not
just laying there, waiting to be used.
From my soft lounge recliner on a KLM jet I look out the porthole as the
iron bird descends through the clouds. From the air, Holland looks like a
vast magic toy nation. There are no blue rectangles that would indicate a
swimming pool culture. Instead, Holland has canals that bisect the
countryside like a living watery gingham quilt. Almost all the roofs are
made of red clay tile.
I wonder why North America builds roofs of asphalt shingles that must be
replaced every fifteen years? What do the Dutch know that we don’t? Plenty.
The guy in the seat beside me, a Dutchman who had come to Canada thirty
years ago on his way “home” for a visit, tells me Canadians have no idea
how good they have it. The subject of space comes up, again. I learn that
Holland proper could be dropped into the middle of most any decent sized
province anywhere in Canada, and there would be space left over! It hit me
as my ears popped that Canada is huge, and Europe is small. But Europe is
full, while Canada is mostly empty.
With so many people living in such close quarters, the only
way to cope socially is to tolerate everyone else, up to a point. In case
there is an outbreak of intolerance, there are smiling Dutch Army
Commandoes strolling around the airport, cradling high power machine
guns. But there are lots of flowers, so these bees seldom sting.
Amsterdam is made of millions, probably billions, of bricks. What isn’t
brick is water. The streets and lanes are too tiny to permit the fat
automobiles we are familiar with, so most everyone rides a
bicycle. Amsterdam is a bicycle-friendly city. Thousands of commuters bike
up to the train every day and park their bikes in neat bicycle buildings.
It’s noticeable that nobody wears a bicycle helmet. One would think that a
nation of bicycle riders would wear helmets, but they don’t feel it’s of
any value. Then why are mandatory bike helmet laws kicking in across Canada
in the next few months? Are we just bike-riding sheep that take direction
from our hired help?
The canals that delight the tourists may be full of Heineken bottles and
burial-at-sea bicycles, but before the days of trains and trucks all the
goods of humanity pretty well had to be carried by boat or muscle power,
animal and human.
Amsterdam was and remains a mighty trading city. It has to be. The Dutch
have few natural resources and so get by through wheeling and dealing. The
canals and warehouses that are full of pot-puffing visitors today once
swarmed with strictly business: boats and barges carrying strange and
staple goods from the most remote outposts of civilization’s fringes. It
had been a feature in the commercial and social life of Amsterdam to be on
the cutting edge of any new botanical novelty that was fun and for which
people would pay money.
The Dutch East India Company was set up to rationalize the trade and
traffic of psychoactive plants that 17th Century Europe was so interested
in. Whatever the tastes of the day dictated, the DEIC was only too glad to
deliver, at a price. Once the DEIC had sourced a particularly interesting
item, there was activity to assume entire monopoly on it, take total
control of the production, preparation, and transport, and finally sell it.
This basic scheme was so successful that others tried to use these
strong-arm methods, usually to a much lesser degree of success. The vast
amounts of money Holland was able to generate from its central role in the
international trade of spices, drugs, and curios from the mystic East paid
for the construction of the elaborate canals, bridges, and warehouses, now
full of boutiques, gift shoppes, and the famous Hashish Cafes. The
spliff-surfer visiting Amsterdam to get blasted is but another flock of
Amsterdam is awash in cannabis. Served up in almost 400 cafes across the
city, the weed of wonder and its concentrated resins are offered on the
menu, and it is not cheap. Parts of the city reek of the unmistakable
skunky pine aroma we recognize as lightbulb pot. (In order to maintain a
crisp mind, there was no sampling for me. I was perhaps the only one for
miles who wasn’t stoned.)
There is great curiosity concerning the cannabis plant in Amsterdam. They
are of course aware of the varieties that will get you stoned: they have
been hip to that for four centuries. Of greater importance are the aspects
of hemp for paper and cloth and building material. In a country without
forests, this is no cafe chit chat.
The Dutch are very serious about the idea of hemp and know that Canada grew
hemp last year. They wish us well, and note that we beat the pants off the
Americans by actually doing the job instead of just talking about it.
Holland has grown hemp with some success for a few years now, and this is
hemp that is cultivated for the peacetime applications of textiles and
paper. World demand is now animated by the wartime production of
buds. That’s the refreshing aspect of the whole hemp movement here; there’s
no heat. There is no mixing up rope and dope in Holland like it is so
easily and almost daily screwed up over in North America. (I know media
journalists can write, but I am not convinced they can read.)
A loose association of researchers, textile importers and fashion
manufacturers are pushing hemp into new heights of prominence, hand in hand
with marijuana. The duality of the plant is understood and appreciated
without mixing it all up. Maybe they can do this because they don’t have to
lie about it every day.
Amsterdam has long been the nucleus of trade in all manner of magic plants
as they were being introduced into western culture. The temperament of
charm and hustle the Dutch are so famous for is no better illustrated than
by their national aptitude for buying and selling spices, drugs, and
herbs. How will they fare with the prize of cannabis? Let us examine their
record regarding other botanicals that you may well recognize.
- Originally from Mexico, we associate chocolate with the Dutch because
they perfected the product and dominated the trade, adding sugar and milk
to the Aztec king Montezuma’s royal eye-opener.
- Those zippy roasted beans from shrubs on the Mocha Coast found an early
home in Amsterdam, where the first coffee houses sprang up. This essential
think-drink is the second most traded commodity in the world, right after
- Long before the English decided to become tea-heads, Amsterdam was the
centre of Western tea trading. Its stimulating properties were reason
enough to annex entire nations to obtain these dried leaves.
Nutmegs, cloves, pepper, opium, ginseng: all in turn flowed through the
port of Amsterdam before arriving in European cities. Once incredibly
expensive, these items are now common to most kitchens.
It was the Dutch who brought Aztec chili peppers to Asia, thus advancing
their bland stir frys, and it was the Dutch who first brought tulip bulbs
from Turkey with great success, and we are all the better for it.
Almost every non-food botanical that western popular culture embraces today
as normal, with few exceptions, faced severe persecution when it was first
introduced. Even the potato was frowned upon in Europe when first offered
up, because it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible, and so was the Devil’s
dinner. Roughly speaking, it takes about 50 years, or at least two
generations, before a new psychoactive plant is accepted in Western
society. For a bunch of smart people, we sure can act pretty ignorant when
it comes to plants.
Cannabis is no exception to this rule. Our fifty years of persecution is
almost up. Now we get to go mainstream, the catnip for humans.
Amsterdam provides safe mooring for all manner of hemp entrepreneurs who
are side-stepping out of the pot-pirate fringe and bringing hemp forward as
the fibre that will take on cotton denim in the next century. Amsterdam is
well aware of the many virtues of hemp and its clean record as an
environmental champion. Dutch farmers have been growing hemp for centuries,
but only in the last few years has it reached such a degree of interest,
now that tree-free paper is so much in vogue.
Here we go again: the Dutch are so into paper that basic paper-making
machinery is still called “Hollander” styles. Amsterdam is a world centre
for book arts and publishing, and it all has to happen on paper. And hemp
paper is the best stuff to make books out of. Hemp and Holland go back a
Some of the hemp fashions I saw in commercial showrooms were
outstanding. The North American hemp stuff I had seen in Canada looks like
prison wear or irregulars from some failed camping equipment company. The
European goods were always good, and much of it was excellent. In
particular there were hemp shoes and “Doc Martin” type boots made of hemp
in lieu of dried cow bellies. These were not cheap, but they were of high
quality, and in the longish run the better deal.
I saw German-made hemp jeans that were the best hempen things I had ever
seen. The cloth was cut to drape perfectly, and they were sewn so
skillfully and looked so well-made as to embarrass the California styles I
am most familiar with. These German jeans were every bit as classy as the
Levi 501, and sell for just over
CDN$100. They are worth it if you
consider that they will last longer than cotton denim jeans. Just how much
longer it’s too soon to tell.
The world price for raw cotton is at an all time high of about
US$1 per pound. The price of denim
will advance to reflect these increases. There is an enormous global demand
for cotton denim, and there is not enough to go around. The arrival of hemp
on the world market is a good thing, even if hemp is more expensive than
cotton at this stage of the game. At the rate things are unfolding, cotton
and hemp should end up costing about the same in a few years. At that point
it will be amusing to watch the fireworks.
Back to pot. While I was visiting Amsterdam there was considerable debate
concerning cannabis being sold in bars as well as cafes. The general
consensus (arrived at by careful discussion and consultation) was that
everyone was happy with good old pot being restricted to the establishments
that would not sell alcohol, only coffee and fruit juices. This keeps the
sleazy elements away from the European college students who just want to
Again, Amsterdam is a fair decade ahead of the rest of the world when it
comes to dealing rationally with changes in their society.
When I arrived in Canada, the news about Amsterdam closing down 100 hash
cafes failed to note that these were wine bars who were sneaking in a hash
Cannabis is certainly no cheaper in Amsterdam just because there are no
repercussions if you get caught. It will cost between
CDN$8-$15 for a single spliff in a
juice bar, and by the gram, hash is as pricey as gold. All transactions of
any size are conducted inside little booths set up like bank tellers inside
the larger hash cafes. This ensures security, and keeps kids from buying
cannabis while Mom and Dad are busy getting stoned at table two over by the
For the most part, people buy the crude dried buds which are grown in the
greenhouses and hydroponic indoor gardens within, or right outside, the
city limits. No international boundaries need be crossed. Without the
hassle of raids gnawing at their creative energies, the Dutch continue to
develop strains of cannabis as potent as any that you could ever hope to
sample. In the next few years the varieties available will be the most
potent the world has ever seen.
The average tourist will be able to obtain and enjoy cannabis that is many
times stronger than Nepalese Temple Balls or all that Humboldt County
Sensei hype from the late 80’s. Here comes
– watch out!
Life goes on, I have to catch my plane. A half inch of snow paralyzes the
city. They have no snowploughs or even snow shovels. Everyone just retreats
into the cafes and gets stoned until the snow melts. Stoned people on
bicycles are unsure of their balance.
The spice trade carries on in the handsome buildings lining the canals:
this time it’s cannabis, and Amsterdam is at the leading edge, again.
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