By Alfa · May 24, 2004 ·
  1. Alfa

    Amsterdam - Los Angeles writer Ellen Clark and I became hopelessly
    lost while searching for a store that sold toothbrushes. That fact
    alone made wandering Amsterdam's narrow streets strange. But the walk
    turned weirder still when we stopped to ask directions from a kind
    bicycle repairman.

    His advice? "Turn left at the penis." Having seen a stone fountain of
    the male sex organ an hour before while visiting the Cannabis College
    in the heart of Amsterdam's famous Red Light District, we knew exactly
    where to go.

    On my one free afternoon during a travel writers' tour of Amsterdam, I
    felt guilty passing up a chance to visit the famous Van Gogh Museum or
    the Anne Frank House in favor of a walk on the wild side of one of the
    world's most permissive cities.

    But, for all its culture, flowers and beauty, this walkable city of
    750,000 residents is perhaps equally well known for its legalized
    prostitution and accessible soft drugs. Though our tour guides refused
    to promote an area they they dismissed as catering to rowdy tourists,
    my reporter's curiosity got the best of me.

    As we entered the district that encompasses several square blocks, it
    became obvious that Ellen and I were in a different world. Shops sold
    postcards of Rembrandt's self-portrait smoking a marijuana cigarette.
    Porn shops advertised their wares openly in windows, leaving
    absolutely nothing to the imagination. And beautiful young women of
    all shapes, sizes and colors stood in various states of undress behind
    storefront windows, beckoning potential customers inside, even in the
    early afternoon.

    My first stop was The Hash Marijuana & Hemp Museum. Identifying myself
    as a reporter, I paid a small entrance fee. The young woman asked if I
    planned to write a positive or negative story. I told her I wanted to
    see what was inside before making any judgment.

    The small museum contained all sorts of interesting facts. For
    example, wagons used by American settlers mostly used hemp for their
    covers. The sails on Christopher Columbus' boats came from hemp. Some
    perfumes and beers are made from cannabis, or marijuana. There was an
    exhibit on marijuana in the movies, a poster for the "Million
    Marijuana March" and a display offering information on the various
    uses of hemp. Historians date the use of cannabis back 8,000 years.

    At the back was a marijuana growing room where different varieties of
    the plant were on display. Visitors were invited to use an inhaler to
    sample some of the goods, but I declined.

    The Cannabis College -- motto: Just Say Know! -- was located a few
    doors up the street. It promoted itself as a place where visitors
    seeking information on the drug could come for a "higher education."

    A friendly curator named Berri, who declined to give his last name,
    stopped washing the front window to answer a few of our questions. He
    told us hemp was prohibited by the United States to protect the cotton
    and petrochemical industries. Then he scrambled to find a Biblical
    reference about the use of cannabis.

    According to its brochure, the college offers free advice "on safe
    recreational use as well as educating the public about the
    resourcefulness of this sadly prohibited plant. Guided tours in our
    cannabis garden allow us to illustrate our information with a
    beautiful, completely organic example of indoor growing."

    A brochure promoted the medical benefits of cannabis for those
    suffering from AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, asthma, arthritis, cancer
    pain, epilepsy and stroke.

    Ellen and I finally found the toothbrush shop, where I purchased a
    Barbie toothbrush for my granddaughter and brushes with floating dice,
    playing cards and golf balls inside their handles for friends and family.

    Later that night, we chatted about Amsterdam's liberal sex and drug
    laws with Guus van den Hout, director of a museum dedicated to
    Christian art and culture.

    "When you legalize these kinds of things, the fun is gone," he said.
    "The Dutch use regulation to keep [potential criminal activity] under
    control. We don't want to have fights and we always compromise. It is
    all about the money. It is a business."

    Brigitta Kroon-Florita, director of public relations for the
    Netherlands Board of Tourism, said legalizing soft drugs such as
    marijuana and hashish may actually keep users from graduating to
    harder drugs, like heroin. To prove her point, she cited research by
    scholars that suggested Dutch decriminalization of narcotics does not
    appear to be associated with greater use of other illicit drugs.

    The next night, while taking a canal boat ride, I again passed through
    Amsterdam's Red Light District. More young women were in the windows
    and, indeed, they were often bathed in red light.

    The place did not seem all that busy.

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