The traditional view of the Netherlands is of a liberal country, where drugs and prostitution are both legal and homosexuality is widely accepted. However, this reputation disguises the fact that the population of the Netherlands is very diverse and a large number of its inhabitants fret about the decriminalization of drugs and the legalization of prostitution, while the gay and lesbian scene flourishes in Amsterdam above everywhere else in the country.
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Thousands of visitors come to the Netherlands in general, and Amsterdam in particular, just to get stoned. In the Netherlands the purchase of cannabis is decriminalized and this has proved to be a real crowd puller, though it’s not without its problems: many Amsterdammers, for instance, get mightily hacked off with “drug tourism”, as do folk in border towns, who have to deal with tides of people popping over the international frontier to the first coffeeshop they see. The irritation is such that there have been recent moves to both reduce the number of coffeeshops and restrict access to Dutch citizens only, who will have to show a valid “weed card’’ to get served – at time of writing it’s not clear what the future will hold for the coffeeshop.
Fundamentally, however, the Dutch government’s attitude to soft drugs remains unchanged: the use of cannabis is tolerated but not condoned, resulting in a rather complicated set of rules and regulations. These permit users to buy very small amounts for personal use only – which means possession of up to 5g and sales of up to 5g per purchase in coffeeshops are OK. Needless to say, never, ever buy dope on the street and don’t try to take any form of cannabis out of the country. A surprising number of people think (or claim to think) that if it’s bought in Amsterdam it can be taken back home legally; this story won’t wash with customs officials and drug enforcement officers, who will happily add your stash to the statistics of national drug seizures, and arrest you into the bargain.
As far as other drugs go, a series of serious incidents prompted the Dutch government to ban the sale of magic mushrooms, making them just as illegal as hard drugs. That said, you can still purchase the “grow-your-own” kits or buy truffles, which are claimed to have a similar effect. Despite the existence of a lively and growing trade in cocaine and heroin, possession of either could mean a stay in one of the Netherlands’ lively and ever-growing jails. Ecstasy, acid and speed are as illegal in the Netherlands as they are anywhere else.
When you first walk into a coffeeshop, how you buy the stuff isn’t immediately apparent – it’s illegal to advertise cannabis in any way, which includes calling attention to the fact that it’s available at all. What you have to do is ask to see the menu, which is normally kept behind the counter. This will list all the different hashes and grasses on offer, along with (if it’s a reputable place) exactly how many grams you get for your money. The in-house dealer will be able to help you out with queries. Current prices per gram of hash and marijuana range from €7 for low-grade stuff up to €20 for top-quality hash and a bit more for really strong grass.
The hash you come across originates in various countries and is much like you’d find anywhere, apart from Pollem, which is compressed resin and stronger than normal. Marijuana is a different story, and the old days of imported Colombian, Thai and sensimelia are fading away. Taking their place are limitless varieties of “Nederwiet”, Dutch-grown under UV lights and more potent than anything you’re likely to have come across. Skunk, Haze and Northern Lights are all popular types of Dutch weed, and should be treated with caution – a smoker of low-grade British draw will be laid low (or high) for hours by a single spliff of skunk. You would be equally well advised to take care with space-cakes (cakes or biscuits baked with hash), which are widely available: you can never be sure exactly what’s in them; they tend to have a delayed reaction (up to two hours before you notice anything strange – don’t get impatient and gobble down another one); and once they kick in, they can bring on an extremely intense, bewildering high (10–12hr is common). You may also come across cannabis seeds for growing your own: while locals are permitted to grow a small amount of marijuana for personal use, the import of cannabis seeds is illegal in any country, so don’t even think about trying to take some home.
Finally, one oddity is that in July 2008, smoking tobacco was banned in coffeeshops (as well as bars and restaurants), though smoking hash remained perfectly permissible: there has been some back-tracking on this, however, and some places now have separate smokers’ dens, though the majority do not – hence the pile up on the pavement outside.
Gay and lesbian travellers
The Netherlands ranks as one of the top gay-friendly countries in Europe, with the superstar of the country’s gay and lesbian scene being, of course, Amsterdam – here attitudes are tolerant, bars are excellent and plentiful, and support groups and facilities unequalled. In the other major cities of the Netherlands, while the scene isn’t anywhere near as extensive, it’s well organized: Rotterdam, The Hague, Nijmegen and Groningen, for example, each has a visible and enjoyable gay nightlife. The native lesbian scene is smaller and more subdued: many politically active lesbians move in close-knit communities, and it takes time for foreign visitors to find out what’s happening.
The COC (w coc.nl), the national organization for gay men and women, dates from the 1940s and is actively involved in gaining equal rights for gays and lesbians, as well as informing society’s perceptions of gayness. Every city of any size has a branch office and they offer help, information on events and promotions – and many have a sociable coffee bar too. Gay legislation is particularly progressive – for example same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex partners were legalized in 2001. The age of consent is 16.
Consider timing your visit to coincide with Amsterdam’s Gay Pride (w amsterdampride.nl) on the first weekend in August. Celebrations are unabashed, with music, theatre, street parties and floats parading through the streets. The other major deal is Queen’s Day – not that sort of queen, but with lots of gay parties anyway, and held on April 30.
In general terms at least, Dutch society is sympathetic to its children and the tourist industry follows suit. Extra beds in hotel rooms are usually easy to arrange; many restaurants (though not the very smartest) have children’s menus; concessions for children are the rule, from public transport through to museums; and baby-changing stations are commonplace. Pharmacists (apotheek) carry all the kiddy stuff you would expect – nappies, baby food and so forth.