If you play a little word association game for “Amsterdam”, the first things many people think of are prostitutes and pot. Despite Amsterdam’s reputation as a city where anything goes, few people have a full understanding of what is actually legal and illegal.
Prostitution is legal; it became fully legalized in the year 2000, so the women working in the Red Light District are tax paying entrepreneurs, who are even represented by their own labor union, the Red Thread (the oldest profession in the world as the red thread of history). Pimping is illegal because of its connections to abuse, human trafficking and drug abuse, as is street-walking, because of its strong connection to pimping. As a result, you will never see a prostitute in the Red Light District leave her window on her shift, because then it would be considered street-walking, which is illegal. It’s interesting to walk the hallways of La Vie en Rose, an indoor alley in the Red Light District. It is here that you can see the girls leave their rooms and wander around talking to each other; their rooms are indoors, so they’re not street-walking.
Drugs, on the other hand, are a completely different issue, and many people are surprised to hear that marijuana is illegal. In the 1960s Amsterdam had a fairly serious drug problem. Many people were smoking far more serious drugs than marijuana, such as heroin, and the junkie problem was out of control. Up until the 1980s, Amsterdam’s Chinatown (the Zeedijk), was home to up to 10,000 junkies. Chet Baker, a very famous musician and heroin addict, died tragically outside the Prins Hotel which is located at the top of the Zeedijk.
Authorities saw that the problem was getting out of control, and that they needed to focus their attention on the serious drugs that were killing people, instead of wasting time cracking down on a plant that only made people lazy and hungry. As a result, a distinction between hard and soft drugs was made; heroin and cocaine users were cracked down on, while soft drug users were left to smoke their weed in peace. This also divided the drug market. Marijuana was no longer in the same league as other hard drugs, and those individuals who wanted to smoke some could go to a coffee shop, rather than a dangerous drug dealer who could expose them to potentially more hazardous drugs.
To this day the tolerance approach to marijuana holds true, but the drug is not fully legal. The possession of five grams on your person is tolerated, while coffee shops are permitted to stock 500 grams per day. Clearly, most coffee shops stock way more than that, because a busy coffee shop can easily sell more than that in one day. It is permitted to smoke in coffee shops, but ironically, since the smoking ban came into effect, it is now illegal to smoke tobacco indoors. As a result, when you go into a coffee shop, you can buy and smoke some marijuana, but don’t light a cigarette, because that’s illegal!
Dampkring photo by Ballistik Coffee Boy/Creative Commons