Three decades ago, Wernard Bruining was a bit younger, a bit more adventurous than he is now.
People call him “the father of the marijuana coffee shops.” According to the Dutch government, there are approximately 850 of Wernard’s “babies” officially operating in Holland, each one licensed to dispense marijuana and hashish.
Back in the day, Wernard and a group of friends ran what was then called a “tea house.” In the US during the early 20th century the word “tea” was slang for marijuana.
Wernard’s Amsterdam tea house, which he named Mellow Yellow, was more a social club than a stoner palace.
In those days, before marijuana had been specially bred to produce the introverted, narcoticized Indica high that today leads to coffee shops generally full of mostly-silent weedheads, marijuana was a social lubricant. People smoked it while discussing radical politics, communes, the Vietnam War, class warfare, saving the earth.
Wernard, who today has a lovely wife and a flock of cute Wernardlings to take care of, says his shop felt like family. It also felt like comedy.
To fool the police, he always had to have some customers in the shop, and one of them, often carrying a leather satchel, was called “the house dealer.”
Inside the satchel were small bagged amounts of cannabis and hashish. During police raids, the customers and the shop manager (or owner) professed ignorance and befuddlement, seeking to confuse and delay police while the house dealer tried to creep away unmolested.
It didn’t always work, but modern Holland has never been the kind of country that treats pot people like real criminals. The Dutch recognize that crimes are activities in which one person harms another person or that person’s property-things like rape, murder, burglary, fraud.
In the US, the government and its Puritan minions impute to society a collective right to protect itself from the imagined harm caused by people’s private personal behavior.
In Holland, citizens can go to a coffee shop or smart shop in Amsterdam and alter their own neurochemistry using natural substances that humans have used for thousands of years. They can then walk to the Red Light District and engage in lovemaking, for a fee.
The Dutch government allows its citizens these freedoms. The US government does not. The US government pays police officers to pose as prostitutes so that other police officers can arrest people who take the bait. They do the same with marijuana, using undercover narks, clandestine penetraitors, helicopters, and illegal spy techniques to seek out people who love plants.
Holland has a far lower drug abuse and sex crimes rate per capita than does the US. One would think that US policymakers would get the hint, but instead, they have repeatedly slandered Holland and tried to force it to change its internal policies, using the United Nations and dupe countries like Sweden and France as proxies.
Former US drug czar Barry McCaffrey, a career military officer whose previous job description could be summed up as “killing people,” traveled to Holland three years ago on an alleged fact-finding mission.
I interviewed some of the people who hosted McCaffrey during his visit. They showed him statistics and treatment centers. Some of the people McCaffrey might have talked to- medical doctors, doctoral-holding social science researchers, honest bureaucrats- smoked pot before they met the General, just for a laugh.
Later, they described him as “incredibly close-minded,” “unwilling to listen,” “distracted and agitated,” “pale and grub-like,” and “a liar.”
“He told us he knew that the Dutch way was better than the American way,” one person told me, “but he assured us that he would say the opposite out loud.”
Indeed, McCaffrey went on television soon thereafter, falsely claiming that Holland’s violent crime rate was higher than the US. He blamed that on Holland’s “loose” drug policies.
A short while later, the “New Yorker” magazine published a compelling article indicating that McCaffrey was probably guilty of war crimes during the Persian Gulf War with Iraq.
Of course, McCaffrey was never punished or even investigated for those alleged crimes. Today, he shows up on television talk shows, a career soldier acting like a medical expert, debating about marijuana. He still lies about cannabis, which is no surprise to the Dutch.
Wernard’s Mellow Yellow was pretty much the only real pot shop in town until around 1975, when the now-famous Bulldog and Rusland shops came on line. Street dealers, dealers on bicycles, and dealers on canal boats were also selling cannabis, and police tried to stop them all, sometimes raiding Wernard and other pot shops several times per day.
It was no use, he says. People loved marijuana, dealers didn’t mind engaging in James Bondian exploits, and the rest is history.
Mellow Yellow closed in 1978, but Wernard’s place in herbal history is assured.
“He was the man who did it all,” says Nol Van Schaik, Wernard’s friend and himself the owner of three coffee shops and a hemp museum in the beautiful Dutch heritage town of Haarlem, Holland. “He was there when the Dutch first learned about sinsemilla, outdoor guerilla growing, seed breeding, professional hydroponics. He set the standard for a clean shop, no hard drugs allowed, and great marijuana. He set up the first professional grow shop. He is a gentle, sane family man in a crazy industry. All of us owe a lot to him.”
In the 21st century, Wernard is still active as an author, connoisseur, advisor, and consultant.
He travels Holland looking for the best coffee shops, then writes about them in books like “The Dutch CoffeeShop Top 50,” which features very useful maps, ratings, and other information essential for memorable cannabis tourism.
“Amsterdam has great shops, but so does the rest of Holland,” Wernard says. “And everywhere you go, you find different varieties of marijuana and hashish, different types of people, and a new slice of our country’s scenery and history.”
With a newly-elected Dutch government making ugly noises about closing coffee shops, and the European Union trying to figure out if it will adopt or reject Holland’s approach, Wernard admits to being a little nervous about the future of the experiment that he helped start so many years ago.
He urges smokers to use marijuana intelligently, to pay attention to reality, and to stand up for their rights. He and Van Schaik are conducting a series of formal classes that teach how to run classy cannabis shops, and he wants marijuana users to be classy too.
“Cannabis is a miracle plant that can heal the environment and help us get in touch with our spiritual side if we use it right,” says the father of the Dutch coffee shop system. “I’m glad to be a part of the world with this plant in it.”
– Contact Wernard Bruining via email at [email protected]
– Nol Van Schaik information can be found at www.wwwshop.nl