GETTING A WHIFF OF DUTCH CULTURE
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
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
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.