Smoking in Amsterdam

Coffeeshops and lip balm
As I step out of the train station in Amsterdam, on my way to be a judge at the 12th annual Cannabis Cup, I know that I must keep my wits about me. Big signs warn tourists of pickpockets. There are throngs of people everywhere. Trams, bicycles, cars and countless other forms of transportation are moving in every direction. Yet these are the least of my worries ? my job is to rate 16 different strains of pot at 16 different coffee shops and pick the best? in four days!

No problem you say. That’s only four joints and four coffee shops a day. A seasoned smoker could do it without rolling papers. This is true, but Amsterdam has 300 coffee shops, which means there’s 284 to run interference. So the first thing I need is a plan. Actually, the first thing I need is a joint.

Coffee shops are usually tiny little caf?s, with a handful of tables or stools and a counter. They are mostly decorated within an inch of their lives in Afghani, galactic or earthy motifs and have names like The Bulldog, Greenhouse, Katsu, de Dampkring, and Dread Rock. Why they are called “coffee shops” is beyond me. They all serve it, but it’s just regular espresso and cappuccino. Short, black and expensive. Most also have juice and everybody has cokes in those little glass bottles. As a true Coca-Cola connoisseur, I’ve stopped into many a coffee shop just for that buzz? but hey, might as well roll a joint while you’re there.

Every coffee shop has a menu, wink, wink, but very rarely displayed. It might be on the counter or it might be tucked away somewhere. I like it when it’s tucked away ? then you can yell down to the end, “Can I get a hash menu down here?” or “Have you got a marijuana list I can look at?” It’s just so civilized. A menu is placed on the counter in front of you, laminated to ward off drool. There you will find a selection of pot and hash from Holland and around the world. You might recognize the names of strains like Northern Lights, AK47, White Russian. Others you won’t, further complicating matters of what’s going to be the best.

Some of the menus have the pot listed in two categories: Hydro and Bio. Don’t let this fool you ? all of it is grown with chemical fertilizers. The Bio is just grown in dirt with chemical fertilizer. There wasn’t a sign of any truly organic bud to be had. So when in Rome? get some lip balm. This pot has a lot of undissolved salts in it, so the lips get pretty dry, necessitating ordering two Cokes at a time. Overcome and adapt.

Vapohaze and traffic

One of my favorite coffee shops was on the way to the hotel. De Dampkring is a welcoming place, decorated in early Hobbit. Someone circulated through the crowd with appetizers and a warm hello. The “bar” was at the back and as I made my way towards it a giant vaporizer appeared in my periphery. The keeper beckoned me to come and showed me a Plexiglass bong, so big I was compelled to take a run at it. He grinned while holding an electric heat gun and packed the bowl with White Russian.

For me smoking through a vaporizer just leaves me stoned and confused. I know I’m blasted, but I have no evidence to support why. So I sucked and sucked on the vaporizer, but saw or tasted nothing. I exhaled for about an hour until the tiniest wisp of smoke escaped. The bong-keeper said, “Aha! There you go, a nice toke!”

This was the ultimate in impulse buying. Like the Pez candy dispensers at the checkout in Safeway, almost everybody who stepped up to the vaporizer went directly to the bar and bought White Russian. Those who didn’t were led crying from the place by their mothers.

When I finally did get a menu, I noticed much to my delight that they had added many selections just for the Cup. The first to meet my eye was pure Haze ? that super Sativa that came out of California in the 70’s. This stuff is electric. You can feel a tingle go up the back of your neck as the THC kicks you into a much higher gear. A nice lemony taste is in your mouth as you stare into space. So I grabbed a bunch of Haze and some Haze Special (NL x Haze), some Swazi, and oh yeah, some White Russian. The bong meister was still at it on the way out and I think I took a toke of AK47, but again I had no evidence to support my claim. I went back and bought a gram just to be safe.

With a head full of Sativa we burst out into throngs of people on Liedse Straat and made our way to the hotel. While dodging traffic and negotiating cobblestones with wheeled luggage you can feel the excitement that is Amsterdam at every turn. Thousands of European tourists flock here on the weekends, making for an eclectic mix of faces, languages and fashions.

The traffic has a life of its own. Trams, bicycles, cars, scooters, mopeds all negotiate tiny streets and are whipping in every direction. You very quickly gain tremendous respect for the sound of a bicycle bell. Cycling is a way of life in Holland. The evidence is in the apparent good health of the residents. Tall, blonde and thin is the order of the day. Given that their diet is rich in sauces, fats and junk food, these people should be fat slobs, but they’re not. I have to think that cycling and inherent genes are the reason. I didn’t see any old people with walkers or electric carts ? they were going by on bikes, carrying big bags of butter and cheese.

The cars are interesting too. Mercedes, Peugeot, BMW, Ford and Alfa Romeo all sell cars in Europe, but not any models that I recognized. These are small, sleek, urban vehicles designed for congested cities and they are a great solution. Swatch watches even makes a car here called the Smart Car. It’s just big enough for two, has modern styling and keeps pretty good time.

Talk pot and sleep

The Quenten Hotel is a lovely little hotel overlooking the Singel Gracht, just around the corner from a huge square filled with restaurants, coffee shops and shopping, called the Leidseplein. The Quenten is a funky place, with a tiny stairway leading up to the four floors. The walls are covered with music posters, but the best part is the six-foot painting of Keith Richards in the lobby. You know you’re in the right hotel.

They are smoke friendly, gay friendly and just plain friendly. Sissy and her staff have gone out of their way on a few occasions to accommodate me, and this time was no exception. I failed to realize that since we’d be flying through the night that our reservation was actually for yesterday and we didn’t show up. Having more forethought than I, the staff anticipated this and had a room reserved at their other Hotel a few blocks away. As we turned to leave, I’m pretty sure I saw Keith’s eyes glaze over.

This hotel was just as nice and the lobby was full of Cannabis Cuppers sampling the wares. We checked in, lightened our load and joined them for a smoke. They were all smoking various kinds of hash they’d picked up here and there. I broke out the Haze to make sure we’d stay awake to enjoy it. The conversation immediately turned to pot and we all became fast friends.

Seth, his daughter Sasha and Phil were all in from Austin, Texas. Real nice folks who like to smoke pot and came to enjoy the festivities and freedom, as were many others I would meet in the days to come. Kyle is a writer for High Times, he and his wife Robin were in from New York City.

The common bond between us was being passed around in a pipe and we gabbed like we’d known each other for years. I’ve never found a more social activity then smoking pot. Total strangers will walk up and ask for a toke, or one is offered before they ask. I wish this would catch on in restaurants: “Hey man, mind if I have a hit of your steak?”

The fact that we had just flown halfway around the world, through several time zones, and we didn’t know what day or time it was dawned on us all at once, and it was time to crash. We left a wake up call for never and headed to bed. We had smoked at least six different types of pot, and three kinds of hash, none of which were entered in the Cup. Oh well, tomorrow would be another day? or the next.

Booths and buds

The Pax Party House is the headquarters of the Cup and is where all of the exhibitors are set up to hock their wares. Several hundred guilders gets you a judge’s pass: a nifty lanyard to wear around our necks, with a laminated card that will truly set us apart from the other tourists and give us reason to stop strangers in the street and talk about pot.

All of the large Dutch seed companies had booths at the Pax. Sensi Seeds, Dutch Passion, the Greenhouse, Serious Seeds and KC Brains were all displaying their past achievements and future promises.

Smack dab in the middle of these giants in the industry, I spied the booth of our good friends Karen and Sita from Vancouver’s own Amsterdam Caf?. Flanked by the Greenhouse and Sensi, they may have been somewhat overshadowed, but with two very nicely budded Romulan plants and plenty of buds to smoke, I’m sure they got quite a few people’s attention. The Romulan is very strong and smoked probably the best I had there. It wasn’t entered in the Cup, but next year they might have a good chance.

We sampled buds at every booth along the way. Dutch Passion gave us Blueberry and Mazar, Sensi had Hash Plant, Sagarmatha had Blue Thunder (Blueberry x Matanuska Tundra). We smoked Bubblegum at Serious, White Rhino at the Greenhouse and something called 007. By then it was time for lunch, so we grabbed a table and smoked some Northern Lights, the Swazi and some Moroccan hash with a guy from Missouri. Cannabis Cup 0 ? Us 17.

Quest for the best

Along with the judge’s pass, there was a “passport” and map included in the kit. The passport listed every coffee shop that was entered, and we were to go and get a stamp, buy their entry and rate it for appearance, smell, taste, how well it burns, and of course how stoned you got. If you could get every stamp in the passport, you became the proud recipient of a T-shirt telling the world of your accomplishment. This didn’t seem reward enough for me ? the lure of the “best smoke” was where it was at. But was it among the 16 or among the 284? There was only one way to find out.

The Melk Weg (pronounced Milky Way) was the other Cannabis Cup venue. It’s an old theater with a couple of bands a night in two different rooms, and three or four areas with tables for smoking. Someone had a bong set up with a video camera taped to it, I guess so you could have a copy of your eyes turning red to show the family back home. This is what I need for the vaporizer. Finally, a way to get the proof!

There was also a pair of scantily clad nurses circulating through the building, administering bong hits of “medicinal marijuana” to those in need. There was no video camera attached to them, however. An urn of White Widow tea seemed to supply biblical proportions of a tasty and potent Chai. This place rocked every night and everybody smoked and re-smoked the samples they had collected that day.

Each joint would be passed with a short infomercial: “This is Ice, from Blue Velvet, liked the taste, burns pretty good too.” Then a pipe comes in from the left: “Sunburst, from Barney’s?” is all he can say before his red face explodes in a cloud of smoke. Now this is good. Both of those are in the passport. I might not have to look any further; the pot could just come to me. But there’s hardly any sense in sitting indoors when you’re in one of the most exciting cities in the world. Especially when on virtually every street there’s another coffee shop that might just have the best pot. So we hit the cobblestone streets to continue the search and take in the sights. Cannabis Cup 2 ? Us 17.

Sativa satisfaction

A great thing about Amsterdam is the availability of Sativas. Most people don’t grow them commercially in North America, so I don’t get a chance to smoke them as often as I’d like. Amsterdam is littered with them. Haze, Purple Haze, NL x Haze, NL Special, Neville’s Haze, Super Silver Haze, as well as Thai, Hawaiian and African strains. But I have to admit that their method of growing leaves a lot to be desired. Most of the pot was full of chemical fertilizers and smoked very poorly. But you sure got stoned!

The Dutch don’t flush their plants at the end of flowering to increase flavor and potency. They also mix their pot with tobacco and couldn’t care less. But you sure got stoned? did I mention that? Same with the hash made from these strains? you sure got stoned!

The Katsu was the place for Sativa. Their entry into the Cup was called Sage. Don’t rightly know what the background to this is but it has a full fruity flavor and was really strong. The Katsu is a tiny place, but even tinier stairs that lead up to a second floor that is tiny. Big enough for us though, and the bucketful we bought downstairs. My favorite was Super Haze Hash? if memory serves correctly. A number of strains and three or four types of hash later, we headed to the Media Coffee Shop, another on the list.

The boys at the Media are second generation cannabis merchants, their father having started the Flying Dutchman Seed Co. Their strains included Skunk, The Real McCoy and Pot of Gold. All Skunk based, the McCoy and Gold are Haze and Kush crosses. Liked the Real McCoy. Lots of flavor and nice up stone. Same with the Gold, but more relaxing. As always, two cokes. Cannabis Cup 4 ? Us 27.

It was looking like we weren’t even going to come close to trying all of the entries in the Cup, so we did the next best thing. We decided to head to another town to see what their pot was like.

Gouda cheese and ganja

The town of Gouda is a comfortable train ride through the countryside. The pronunciation of the name however is not so comfortable ? it’s Howda with a capital hack, and many laughs abounded when we asked if this was the right train to Gooda! But we made it nevertheless, and after a short walk found ourselves in the middle of an 11th century square in the town so famous for its cheese. We bought a selection from a lovely woman who completely ignored telling us that it is illegal to import cheese into Canada, and instead in perfect English she told us we didn’t need a receipt.

The smell of hash enticed us around the corner to a comfortable little coffeshop, where we found ourselves in the midst of locals getting off work. A diverse and friendly bunch, we spent the next few hours swapping tales of our homelands and smoking big joints with young Dutch, Palestinian expatriates and a couple of members of the Hell’s Angels’ Holland chapter. They had a problem grasping the wide-open spaces of Canada, and on one occasion asked if we needed an airplane to get to our neighbour’s house. Rather than explaining that we technically live in a more modern society than they do, we said “Yeah,” and left it at that, and then asked what was good on the pot menu. The resounding answer was NL Special and the Zero-zero hash.

Both were delightful, but they also had a Purple Haze that was the best. Really purple and extremely potent, with a nice fruity taste. The hash was Afghani and had a full, rich flavor, while the NL Special was the best example of NL x Haze we saw. Mixed together, they proved to be one of the best combo joints we rolled. However, our new Dutch friends wouldn’t smoke it with us, as they thought they might “get out of control.”

We managed to keep our composure and didn’t fling big chunks of cheese around the place, but I suppose “out of control” for the Dutch, who I’m convinced are crossed with Vulcans, could be as simple as having a lock of blond hair fall oddly out of place.
Bond’s boat and the Stone’s hash

Back in Amsterdam we joined friends aboard an antique canal boat for a private night cruise through the city. Tommy, our captain and the boat’s restorer, guided us through Amsterdam’s myriad of canals and backwaters, while we filled bowl after bowl of several different kinds of hash. Tommy assured us that it would be no problem, and that in fact only a few weeks before Pierce Brosnan had sat in that very seat, smoking hash at the same rate. What’s this? Famed secret agent 007 has turned in his martini shaker for a bong? This is good news. He may still have a license to kill, but now probably won’t have the desire to use it.

Easily the finest hash we smoked was aboard the canal boat. We got a chunk of hand rubbed Neville’s Haze hash by way of Arjan ? the devil-may-care owner of the Greenhouse. The word was that this hash was not available for sale anywhere, at any price. Only the Rolling Stones had put down enough money to smoke this buttery delight.

When Tommy the boat captain heard this he added that the Stones had also been on the boat only a couple of months ago, so we felt that we were in pretty good shape. We were smoking hash only the Rolling Stones could get, in the same boat they had cruised along in, under the watchful eye of Keith back at the hotel. I don’t think it gets any better than that.

Subjective judgment

We did manage to sample most of the rest of the entries in time for the judging. The Super Silver Haze from the Greenhouse won. It’s extremely potent and no doubt that’s the reason that it won, but for me the Sunburst at Barney’s Breakfast Bar was better. It has a full, rich, sweet skunk flavor, and although not as potent as the Super Silver Haze, still had a very nice kick.

It’s a pretty subjective thing this cannabis comparison. It has so much to do with the individual, what that individual is feeling at the time, even the time of day that you smoke. Or maybe you were at the Melk Weg for several hours drinking White Widow Tea and being Skaaed half to death by Fishbone.

If I have to pick a winner, it was me, although by the end of the week I might have lost points for smell and appearance. To be able to enjoy cannabis openly and without fear in such a fascinating location is something everyone should experience. (Not to mention a first hand look at how these substances can safely become part of our society.) Whether it’s Cannabis Cup week or not, everybody should visit Amsterdam at least once. Tell them Keith Richards sent you.