A little tolerance in Amsterdam
Smoking pot in Amsterdam is this simple: You walk into a coffeehouse and go to a counter where you'll find a menu listing the varieties of marijuana and hashish on offer. Every item on the menu has a distinctive name, like "Amsterdam Fire" or "B-52." You can take your chances and choose a smoke based solely on this sort of poetry, or you can ask the fellow behind the counter for a more detailed description of what might ensue once you inhale. In any event, you give him five or six Euros, he gives you the kind of plastic packet coin collectors in the States use for storing silver dollars. Except instead of a silver dollar, you're now holding a couple of fragrant buds - enough to give you and your friends a very pleasant buzz.
It's downright cozy. The Dutch like coziness. They often express this by telling you that it would be nice to get together for a little visit, or a little snack - or a little smoke.
Spend a few days in Amsterdam and it's hard not to feel as if you've found a place where the social ideals of the 1960s have actually turned into social policy. Tolerance is the watchword here, an abiding belief that as long as people's behavior does not intrude upon or harm others, then it's permissible. In addition to allowing the sale and use of soft drugs, the Netherlands is also known for legalized prostitution, gay marriage and for refusing to prosecute doctors who facilitate the end-of-life decisions of their patients.
Perhaps this stems from the Netherlands' long history of republican government. In the 1600s, when, thanks to the dominance of its trade and shipping, the Netherlands enjoyed its so-called Golden Age, the country was unique in Europe for being governed by its citizens rather than by royalty.
The Netherlands is also a highly secular society. Where American presidents go out of their way to be seen attending church services and are quick to invoke the name of God in public utterances, the Dutch prime minister is openly agnostic. When it comes to public life, the Dutch favor rationality over religion.
And so if you stay in a hotel in Amsterdam you're likely to find a card with a picture of a winking joint that tells you: "Using HASH or WEED can make you happy and relaxed, but there are also risks. Keep this card with you and read the tips on the reverse before use."
On the back it says that hash can make you feel sick. People are encouraged to find a quiet place and eat or drink something sweet. If symptoms don't pass in an hour call an ambulance. "Hash slackens the muscles and makes you move with difficulty. Also, your blood pressure will drop once you stand up suddenly ... In this way people have dropped out of windows or from balconies." People are cautioned to eat only small pieces of Spacecake (cake with hash or weed). "Don't take an extra piece, it will be too much." And there are multiple warnings about using hash and weed with alcoholic beverages, magic mushrooms or other drugs. "Hash and magic mushrooms can lead to very nasty trips," says the card, which concludes, "Be careful. And know that smoking always damages your health."
The Dutch seem to believe that, given appropriate information, people can decide what's best for themselves. In Amsterdam, where almost everybody appears to ride a bike, they recently considered an ordinance making crash helmets mandatory. In the end they decided against it for fear of making something virtually everyone does (biking) seem more dangerous than it really is.
Although former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey famously called Dutch drug policy "an unmitigated disaster," marijuana use by Dutch teens is only 13.6 percent compared to 38 percent among American high school seniors. What's more, drug use in the Netherlands does not appear to have led to a more violent society. The murder rate in the Netherlands is 1.8 per hundred thousand, the lowest in the European Union. There are fewer homicides in the Netherlands in a year than in Houston, Texas.
In spite of its demonstrable successes, Dutch social tolerance remains unique among nations. This puts it in a potentially precarious position. If, instead of learning from the Dutch model, other societies continue to wink at it, a city like Amsterdam could find itself turning into a kind of urban freak show for drug and sex tourists - the 42nd Street of Europe.
The limits of Dutch tolerance are being tested on another front. Last year the murder of Theo Van Gogh, a public provocateur known for making gross ethnic slurs against Muslims, led to a violent backlash against the country's Muslim community, which accounts for about 1 million people. In 10 days there were some two dozen arson attacks on mosques and schools. Today, some Dutch politicians warn that an influx of immigrants from Turkey and Morocco, combined with declining birthrates among native Dutch people, could create a "non-European" majority in a couple of generations.
What it means to be Dutch - to be tolerant - is suddenly up for debate. There's nothing cozy about that.
This is the second of four columns written with the support of a Creative Renewal Fellowship provided by the Arts Council of Indianapolis and the Lilly Endowment.