Ed Goes To Amsterdam

People living in the United States are used to politics and ideology trumping fact and science. As someone who shuttled between the US and the Netherlands for several decades, I always marveled at the difference in the way the two countries treated social issues. Dutch policies towards drugs, sex and sex education, support of the arts, and pulling people into the middle class were models for progressives throughout Europe and North America.

When I flew there this summer, I hadn’t visited Amsterdam for three years. I was shocked at the changes. Soma, an old friend, was the first person I visited. He told me in the week before I arrived two friends had been raided. One had been growing under four 600-watt lamps and the other had been using six of them.

While I was sampling Soma’s hash and kief, Sam Smith, another American expatriate called to say that his garden was being raided. All the plants and equipment were taken, but Sam was not jailed. Soma himself is entangled in interminable judicial proceedings, some of which date from 2001. While Soma had plenty of hash and dried bud to show me, he had no working garden at the moment. Soma without a garden is as unthinkable as a musician without his/her instrument – it’s his means of expression.

This is not the freewheeling city that became the European capitol of hippies and drugs. It’s the cleaned up version, and anyone who doesn’t want to get aboard the middle class work-train can just get out. The pendulum is swinging back and there’s a broom attached to its brass ball. This applies all the more to foreigners: possible terrorist Middle Easterners and North Africans, junkie Germans, drunk Brits, thuggish East Europeans and bohemian Americans.

In the past, I have filed stories from Holland about a quarter acre greenhouse, other large gardens, breeding rooms, and seed factories. Now the research gardens have been reduced to between six and twelve lights. One grower said he had thirty 600-watt lights. What he really meant was that he was a contractor of sorts. He works with families in the less populated eastern part of Holland. One family has twelve 600-watt lamps and another has eighteen, the equivalent of about seven and eleven 1000-watt lamps, respectively.

The next day I visited a seed company’s overflow garden that was imposed on one of the owner’s apartment. A small room was devoted to mothers and clones. Two 2’ x 6′ spaces were created in other rooms, made by stapling white-black plastic to a wooden frame box and hanging 600-watt lamps from the top. The plants looked terrible, and the garden looked like it was developed by an amateur who had little time or interest in gardening. The plants were unevenly lit. Some were stunted and burned by the light. Others were stretched from heat. Some buds were relatively undeveloped from being shaded. The lamps were installed in cheap reflectors that were inappropriate for the location. As a result, much of the light was lost to sidewalls and ceiling rather than getting to the plant. The distance between lamp and canopy was about 2.5 feet. Even so, the lights were burning the top canopy. If the grower had used air-cooled reflectors to direct light down and light movers to distribute it more evenly to the garden, the plants would have been much less stressed. This garden looked like the efforts of a first-timer who hadn’t read a decent book on the subject. “This is bizarre,” I thought to myself as I was staring at this totally inappropriate garden. However, it’s just an artifact of the repression.

Holland has developed a weird set of rules and regulations. The government has outlawed all indoor cultivation under lights and in greenhouses, because only natural cultivation of marijuana is allowed. Sophisticated cultivation techniques indicate intent to sell. That leaves outdoor cultivation. However, Holland is a country with short, cool summers and limited sunlight, making it nearly impossible to actually harvest decent weed. The only solution would be to use blackout curtains to hasten the harvest. They, too, are illegal because they also are deemed unnatural. These laws are totally arbitrary. The intent of the framers was to stop personal cultivation and make aficionados dependent on coffee shops and black market dealers. Cannabis is being pushed into the category of manufactured product, rather than homegrown high.

The people at Cannabis College maintain a demonstration garden in the basement. This time they were using high watt fluorescent lamps in place of the HPS lamps they usually use. They had only one lonely plant under a 250-watt HPS, sort of as a relaxed control. The fluorescents had a “cool white” spectrum and 100-watt input. These lamps have been touted for growing in both magazine articles and advertisements. Here I could see first-hand how they performed. Before you read too much into any of my comments I’d like to mention some caveats. The conditions were not ideal. There were no real controls and a different spectrum fluorescent “warm white” might have been more efficient in promoting flowering.

The plants were producing good-looking viable buds, but they weren’t as large as they would have been with more intense light. The bulbs might have been able to approach HID intensity if they were placed closer together. Another way of increasing intensity would be a reflector designed to bring all the light down to the garden. The ones being used trapped some of the light between the bulb and the top of the reflector so it never reached the garden.

Coffee shops are licensed in Amsterdam. They are allowed only a limited amount of cannabis on premises, and aren’t allowed to advertise or sell T-shirts or souvenirs. The police and regulators are constantly looking for excuses to suspend or close the shops: underage customers, too much produce, or any other violation.

Holland has undergone a huge transformation over the last fifteen years. It has given up on its goal of an egalitarian, tolerant society that had propelled the country during the post-war years. Instead, it drew inspiration from Thatcher and Reagan and set about freeing itself from social obligations to its citizens. In the face of a “free market” economy, government subsidies dried up. Alternative lifestyles went out of style. It was no longer acceptable to be a hippie. The government even sold the Post Office to private investors.

The Dutch face other dilemmas and contradictions, which boiled to the surface and resulted in two political assassinations that have punctured the psyche of the country. In May 2002, Pym Fortuyn, the leading candidate for Prime Minister, was assassinated. He was openly gay and regarded Islam as a backwards culture, and reasoned that Holland was a tolerant, progressive society especially regarding sexual mores and homosexuality. Immigrants from North Africa had a very different lifestyle and set of values that didn’t integrate into the fabric of Dutch society. Pym was assassinated by a native Dutchman who opposed his platform of limiting immigration and said that Pym represented “a steadily increasing danger for vulnerable groups in society, namely Muslims.” This shocked the nation.

The conflict between a permissive society where alternative lifestyles flourish and the values of some of those alternative lifestyles became glaringly apparent to the Dutch with the publicity that Ayaan Hirsi Ali garnered. She entered the country with false papers fleeing from an arranged marriage. She became a vociferous voice for women living in Muslim cultures and aroused the enmity of the immigrant community’s leaders for exposing the injustices women face. After gaining Dutch citizenship she won a seat in the national legislature and campaigned for a change in attitude among the authorities. She voiced that it is not okay to continue misogynistic traditions in Holland. When authorities turn a blind eye to these activities they are not just respecting the traditions of the community, but are allowing crimes that would never be permitted if committed against members of the population at large.

Then in 2004, Theo Van Gogh, relative of the famous painter and an iconoclastic film maker, teamed up with Ayaan Hirsi Ali to produce a movie entitled ‘Submission’ about abuse of women in Netherlands’s Muslim community. After both received death threats, Van Gogh was assassinated while bicycling on the street. Ayaan hired guards to protect herself against similar violence. Ironically the deaths of Pym and Theo, who both celebrated Dutch tolerance and progressive social attitudes, resulted in a social backlash not only against new immigrants but against alternative lifestyles as well. Thus the social tolerance that they both advocated frayed even more as a result of their deaths.

Walking around the Dam Square area in mid-June I expected to see a lot of college kids backpacking their way through Europe. First stop: Amsterdam. I saw exactly three backpackers during my nine-day visit to the city. Legions of kids traveling during the summer are an artifact of a different era. Instead, the kids are interning or working summer jobs. School is so much more costly, the competition so much fiercer, that there is no time to drop out for a few months. Jaan, a native Amsterdammer who keeps up with the local politics, told me that the city government has been putting pressure on the youth hostels to cater more to the Rembrandt than the Vondel Park crowd. As a result, there are fewer hostels and fewer inexpensive two star hotels. He said, “They were told to upscale or get out.”

Mila’s shop, After The Harvest, is always filled with interesting products. This trip was no exception. There was a giant Pollinator® about 15 feet long. The unit automated kief making, could hold several kilograms and was easy to load.

Hundreds of little peyote cactus plants were in the back of the long, narrow store. Almost all of them were about two inches across. Some had been grafted onto other cacti, which seems to boost their growth. There were also cuts of San Pedro cactus, which contains mescaline. Both cacti are high light plants, so they are obviously hanging out until someone who likes gardening under bright lights adopts them. I’ve grown San Pedro outside my house in California, in a brightly lit sheltered area that gets direct sun more than half the day. It grows to about 6 feet and produces beautiful lily-shaped white flowers.

Mila also had refrigerated mushroom kits. She’s not the only one. The Damrak is the main street between Central Station and the Palace. It is filled with tourist souvenir shops, many of which also sell the kits. They are prepared with spawn or growing mycelia and a rich medium for them to grow into and use as food. The kits are made in aluminum tins that you might use for a commercial pound cake. Just flip off the top and place the tin inside a plastic bag in a cool shady place. Voila! A few weeks later the mushrooms will grow out of the medium, ready to eat. Just don’t dry them. That’s illegal. Can’t wait to grow your own? Step into a Smart Shop and pick up enough to feed your head. There’s usually a selection of varieties in both kits and fresh mushrooms.

The most interesting product I saw in her shop was a blot-type qualitative test designed to test cannabinoid levels: each reactive kit tests 8 samples. More information is available at www.alphanova.nl. While I was in the shop, one of Mila’s friends dropped in to show me some medical marijuana he purchased in the pharmacy with a prescription. It was dry and stale looking, perhaps from the treatments used to make sure it had no fungal infections. The fellow told me it cost a bit more than better coffee shop weed. We tried it and it tasted just as it looked and felt – stale.

Mila told me that under treaties signed with the US, extradition requests are handled promptly and with a minimum of hearing and due process. So far, she said, 36 people have been shipped to the US to face criminal charges regarding marijuana. I found that hard to believe so I looked at the treaty. (It can be found at www.internationalextradition.com/netherlands_bi.htm). The provisions state that if a crime committed in one country is also a criminal act in the other country punishable by more than a year in prison, or if the person has been convicted and has at least four months to serve, s/he will be returned to the other country. The only hearings that usually take place under these laws are to prove identity. Only occasionally can a defendant bring up other issues. For instance, Wesam Delaema, a Dutch national, was wanted in the US for Al Qaeda activities. However, a Dutch court blocked his extradition based on such US treatment of terrorist suspects as lack of counsel, terrible living conditions, and rules of evidence. This was a headliner case reported throughout Holland. Drug defendants cannot bring these violations of international law, or the Dutch version of “cruel and unusual punishment”, to the attention of the courts, and requests for review are routinely sent back. I haven’t verified the number, but it no longer makes the news.

You might be thinking that even if growing marijuana isn’t legal, sales must be, because the shops are still open. The problem is that the Dutch never legalized either sales or even possession of marijuana. Hence, the treaty applies and very few trials are held. In fact, I am one of the few people in Holland who has ever received one.

It all happened in 1985. I was the first curator of the Hemp Museum and was indicted by the right-wing minister of justice shortly after the institution opened. The charges were advocating the use of drugs and possession. I had an attorney, Gerard Van Aspirin, but was also permitted to hand in my own brief. I argued that depicting facts was not advocacy. Certainly the “Torture Museum” doesn’t advocate the scenes it depicts. Also, if the court found that it did advocate, the Dutch law was contradictory to the Treaty of Rome, signed by the Dutch, which guarantees freedom of speech and advocacy. I won on these issues.

The possession charge concerned the kilos of grass and hash in the Museum. The police had advised us how to denature the product, soak the hash in a weak solution of rubber cement. The grass was sprayed with a similar spoiler. Nevertheless, the owner and I were indicted for this unusable material. I was found guilty of possession under an ounce and fined $50. The reason is simple. If I had won on both charges the state would have had to pay all my legal and living expenses incurred because of the trial. Being practical judges, they found me guilty to absolve the government of any costs.

There are many reasons why marijuana is regulated and tolerated to a degree, but is not legal. Domestically the government would probably like to tax it. However, it isn’t legal and supposedly isn’t taxed. That’s because the country is quite small, only 20 million people, surrounded by big anti-pot countries Germany and France, and Holland is part of the European Community, which for the most part doesn’t look at the experiment favorably. They’d go apoplectic if the Dutch legalized.

While I was stunned at the changes I saw in Amsterdam, most American tourists will never notice the difference. Except for upscaling, fewer cheap hotels and hostels, and the scaling of the Euro to the dollar (which also lessens buying power), the changes are subtle. There are coffee shops everywhere, lots of clubs, concerts and pubs. It’s just that many of the clubs and bars are no longer marijuana friendly thanks to various ordinances and regulations. Then there are the nuisance laws. You can’t smoke pot on the street, or sitting at a table outside a club. In some sections of town there are “No Roken” signs, a circle with a spliff crossed with a red line.

Shortly after I left the country, the conservative coalition imploded. Rita Verdonk, the Minister without Portfolio (Immigration) and a member of VVD, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s own party, investigated claims that Ayaan lied to get into the country after a TV show expose. Political refugees commonly do this because if they used their real names while traveling they would be harassed or worse. The Minister wanted to revoke Ayaan’s citizenship and, of course, remove her from parliament after the investigation showed she had lied about her real name and date of birth. This caused such uproar that the coalition members demanded Rita’s dismissal. When she remained in office, the cabinet fell apart. Ayaan is still a Dutch citizen but is now working for a free market think-tank, American Enterprise Institute in the US.

Where’s it all headed? Who knows? There is some hope that a new government composed of Social Democrat policies will either change course or slow down the ship. Meanwhile, Amsterdam is still a fun city and you are bound to have a good time visiting.

Ed’s favorite museums and cultural attractions

Van Gogh Museum: Incredible paintings by the impressionist master and his peers. This alone is worth a trip to the City.

War Resistance Museum: The Dutch showed fierce resistance to the German occupation during WWII including homemade tanks and several newspapers including Het Parool, which was widely distributed and is still publishing.

Tropen Museum: An anthropological museum with realistic, insightful exhibits. When I visited in June they had an excellent exhibit about Hinduism that kept me there for the good part of an afternoon.

Rijksmuseum: While I found most of the classical paintings in this museum rather boring, Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” and the surrounding group of paintings by his peers make it worth visiting.

Ed’s favorite restaurants

Sluizer’s: Dutch food, prepared by excellent chefs. The restaurant is a little upscale but offers flavors with nuances and subtlety.

Hotel American Café: Situated in a large room overlooking the Leidseplein*, this is an experience as well as eating destination. I always meet people I know from other places when I drop in there.

Indonesian Restaurants: These fill the niche that Chinese restaurants occupy in the US. Find a nice looking one or ask around for recommendations. Go with a large group of people and order a “rice table” dinner.

* The Leidseplein is a major square of Amsterdam. It is probably the main nightlife center of the city. The square and the surrounding streets are full of bars, restaurants, outdoor cafes, theaters, dance clubs, etc. Street performers are often found on the square. It is very popular with tourists and locals alike, although some locals find it overcrowded during high season. – Wikipedia.com

Ed’s favorite coffee shops

Grey Area: Small but always has top quality bud and a friendly, mainly American crowd.

Dampkring: A well-done psychedelic style interior, a friendly crowd and excellent grass and hash make this a winning combination.

Homegrown Fantasy: I like their down-home atmosphere and the activity in the place, and it’s conveniently located in my path as well. I haven’t actually tried their weed – just had coffee. The few tokes I’ve taken on passes tasted very clean.

Bluebird: If you’re into hash, either Dutch domestic or imported, this is definitely the place to visit.