Pitch: In the year 2018, a DC coffee lounge owner experiences a “re-criminalized” Amsterdam, whose cannabis scene has reverted back to the stone ages; whereas the US has taken its place as the marijuana capital of the world.
Every year Nancy and I fly to Amsterdam for the Koningsdag festival, “Kingsday;” but in April 2018, a two-day layover in London, due to the nearby “militarized dispute,” as people are now calling it, got us in the day after. Our mission was to scout out new ideas for our business at home. Shortly before eleven, we checked our luggage at the old Waldorf on Herengracht, a restored canal house with a scant twenty guest rooms left in operation. Then we walked across Thorbeckeplein, a desolate row of refuse from the previous day’s revelries. On the northern side of Rembrandt Square, Nancy and I continued straight on Halvemaansteeg, a shop-studded pedestrian way adjoining the northwest corner of Rembrandtplein to Amstel Canal’s northern tip.
Two-thirds up the way, on the right, Balou appeared with its baron façade. The Rastafarian signage had vanished. We always visited this coffee shop before stumbling among new ones and eateries in the Centrum. Inside was a relaxed space for sixteen souls downstairs and light jazz in surround sound in the upstairs parlor, reminding us of New Amsterdam, our coffee lounge on Wisconsin, near the Public Library in Georgetown. Nancy and I stared at the two locals rolling stinky, crushed buds, probably indica, over an ancient chess table.
The bud tender, a plain but attractive brunette, likely Dutch, stooped over a tarnished, blackened steel juicer. I nodded to her and stared overhead at the menu of indica strains, all hydroponic. She looked up from the hopeless contraption. “This won’t do,” she said in perfectly affected English. In Balou’s heyday, English predominated; more French, from bordering countries, was probably spoken than Dutch. “We won’t need it anyway. We close next month.” She retired the juicer and re-arranged the gram bags in rows, periodically testing their scent. “I’m Alex, by the way.”
I answered, “Mason and Nancy,” and requested an eighth of Silver Haze and two Chamomiles. “That’s a shame. We have always preferred the atmosphere here to the disco-themed shops and such elsewhere.”
Alex peaked into several drawers searching for the muted indica-sativa dominant strain. Back home, new shops were opening up everywhere, I explained, trying to offer her hope. Maybe she’d consider relocation. A few years after decriminalization, dispensaries converted into Dutch-like coffee shops, and business boomed, unannounced nationwide poverty notwithstanding.
Nancy gave Alex a hundred and ten Euros, in exchange for our favorite hybrid, a diamond among Balou’s modest selection of indicas. Nancy noted that our cannabis boom was facilitated by Obama decriminalizing it back in late-2016, though he stopped short of regulating and taxing it like alcohol.
Alex laid out tea service with sugar and honey, and complained that all her customers now buy most of their grass on the streets. She’d be shut down if they sold anything with THC content over 15%. Meanwhile, on the black market, it’s largely 30%.
Over the past three years, we had seen them drive Amsterdam coffee houses steadily out of business, allowing a black market of every illegal drug imaginable grow ad infinitum—all manmade and chemical-based, other than the cannabis and the truffles, naturally. Pot only becomes a gateway drug when drug dealers push the toxic stuff on customers, was my experience.
Nancy rolled the 15% THC haze crystals using Virginian hemp paper, and asked Alex about Koningsdag. Alex closed the register draw and sat high on her stool, recounting it all. Brawls littered the streets and canals, with twenty deaths and sixty casualties, especially among the anti-government activists.
I expounded how much of the US had become far less violent due to cannabis legalization, especially in cities like DC and Denver, the twin cannabis capitals. Since recreational marijuana is legal and fully regulated in half the states, I explained, with the other half decriminalizing and tolerating medical use, a whole industry has emerged in public sight. Weed accounts for all the growth in decent paying jobs. I boasted that our business was already profitable after just recently converting our two-year old Georgetown dispensary into a lounge serving weed, hash, edibles, tea and coffee.
I stared at the silvery crystals and set about the task of rolling up the pungent merchandise while Nancy glimpsed at the foot traffic outside, mostly kids drinking out of paper bags. Alex sighed and asked me if I liked the Haze. I held up my index finger begging for her patience as I finished inhaling, holding and finally exhaling the sweet, pungent smoke from my pocket Peanut Pipe. Feeling a buzz of energy from head to toe already, I happily exclaimed that I always tried the strain on our trips to Amsterdam. I was already pretty stoned as I explained that my folk’s property in Colorado provided acres of sun drenched growing space and produced one of the best Silver Haze strains outside of Boulder. I knew Balou’s product came from all over the world, but the purest Haze seeds originated in California.
Through the windows of the shop, an altercation was developing in the street. Two inebriated school-age boys in blue denim bullied and shoved a younger teen into the doorway of the vacant vision shop, formerly a seller of moist truffles. I followed Nancy carrying our freshly rolled blunts up the stairs. Passing a silent couple sitting tightly in the back corner of the landing, we sat beside the window looking over the skirmish outside, facing south towards the Square.
Hardly half of my spliff was burned when we beheld a shiny steel blade dig into the stockier thug’s right thigh. Bad buzz, Nancy observed. Two gendarmes, on horseback, seemed unbothered when the second aggressor was stabbed in the back fleeing the scene, emitted a faint breath and collapsed. The horsemen sat idly by merely clutching their radios as the lone underdog stuffed the bloodied knife inside his coat pocket and raced to Amstel.
In our paranoia, we finished off the haze, and exited the back of the shop, walking west along Amstel to the western end of the tram-packed Reguliersbreestraat, near the Art Deco Theatre Tuschinski. Just a few doors down on our left, the Burger-bar became our refuge from a Gomorrah-like Rembrandtplein. Our anxiety quickly subverted to relaxed bliss again, as we took a deep breath.
After devouring two of the best burgers in town, we dashed down Vijzelstraat to our hotel, avoiding Rembrandtplein altogether. We planned to enjoy what would probably be our last trip to Amsterdam. Snug in our wooden beamed king loft on the top floor, I called the delivery service that Alex had scribbled down for me on her business card. He said an hour.
I made reservations for two in Peacock Alley, and Nancy prepared two bowl hits from the promptly delivered ounce of Dutch Haze. We got a good deal, eight hundred bucks. The 100% sativa delivered a more cerebral high than the hybrid, so we gladly took that sensation with us downstairs.
I sat Nancy behind a low-lying table in a corner of the once grand reading room overlooking an untended garden. A second Martini in hand, we agreed that a once tolerant Amsterdam, and the whole of Holland by extension, had almost fully morphed back to its cannabis prohibition days from before the sixties, where the US had been since the Depression, until these last few years anyway.
Like Holland now, Washington State and DC also depended on ‘bezorgservice,’ where operators were handsomely compensated for risking felony. The delivery service business bridged the gap from prohibition/medical tolerance/decriminalization to legalization/taxation/regulation. Each with a rich history of cannabis culture, the US had taken the Dutch monarchy’s place as the marijuana capital of the world, probably both due to economic collapse in Europe and cannabis’ status as the last beacon of hope in America, at least for jobs and an occasional escape from the faker and faker “real” world.
We flew back to DC prematurely, following breakfast the next morning. State-side, they had yet to crack down on marijuana again, following Elizabeth Warren’s January coup over Hillary that immediately resulted in a reversal of Obama’s last executive order, the decriminalization of pot on a national level. The only change over the past several months, however, was the closure of the vision shops opened in Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria after Clinton’s 2017 inauguration. A story had circulated that three grams of dried truffles drove a French au-pair to leap out of her window.
We rode in our VW from BWI to our townhome, a block up from the canal in Georgetown, and dropped our bags in the front hall. The abject mirage of politics aside, we strolled onto Georgetown’s streets, craving the buzz of wakeful souls frequenting the unaffected coffee shops up and down Wisconsin. New Amsterdam saluted us with the best selection of outdoor grown sativa in the Capital and a loyal and unpretentious clientele. Going forward, we would stray from our oasis strictly to visit new cannabis-friendly destinations, perhaps the South of France. Stay tuned.
By Robert Brand