Monday, May 21, 2012

New law threatens Amsterdam’s cannabis culture



 Hendrix (Jimi) gazes down with bloodshot eyes from a portrait on the wall. Jagger (Mick, “Gimme Shelter”) groans on the sound system. And sitting joyous amid clouds of swirling smoke at the 420 Cafe is Savage (Jason, of Morgantown, W.Va.), a tourist who arrived a few days ago on one of his frequent trips to the Netherlands.

He does not come for the tulips.

Yet even as he eagerly anticipates his turn on a joint the size of Texas in his pal’s hand, this 38-year-old visitor is troubled. Word is spreading fast through the United Nations of Stoners: For foreign tourists — generations of whom were drawn to this city’s open cannabis culture — these could be the last days of Purple Haze (or Lemon Larry, White Widow, NY Diesel, Space Cake and any of the other earthy-spicy morsels on this city’s extensive marijuana menus).

Enforcement of a new law banning all but Dutch residents from pot “coffee shops” started in southern cities in the Netherlands, where drug-related organized crime became one of the main drivers of the new regulations. Roadside signs put up by authorities across the south now bluntly warn visitors, “New Rules, No Drugs,” with at least one cafe shut down by police for serving foreigners and several others closing voluntarily in protest of the tourist ban.
But for global Bohemia, what truly matters is the second phase of the plan: On Jan. 1, the ban is scheduled to go into effect across the rest of the country — the 250 cannabis cafes of Amsterdam included.

Just like that, a thriving scene where aging hippies toke with the Occupy movement’s tweeting classes, where themed pot cafes seem to teleport you to Paris of the 1890s, Casablanca of the 1920s, Haight-Ashbury of the 1960s, could vanish in a puff of smoke.
“This is huge,” Savage moaned, head in hands. “I mean, how could they do this to us?”

Rolling back tolerance
From the macro perspective, the move could deal a blow to global efforts to legalize marijuana — a movement that through legal medicinal sales has been making steady gains in the United States, where even televangelist Pat Robertson has come out in favor of treating cannabis like alcohol in the eyes of the law. Now, opponents could seize on the rolling back of tolerance by even the accommodating Dutch as evidence that legalization might not work as well as advocates claim.

But for weed lovers of the world — a group for whom Amsterdam became a sort of rite of passage and a liberation from the confines of home — the personal loss could be incalculable.

“The coffee shops became extensions of your living room, a place where you find a 65-year-old Brazilian lawyer talking to a 20-year-old American backpacker, both relaxed and open because they’re smoking” weed, said Jonathan Foster, 40, a Rhode Island musician who in 1995 opened Grey Area, Amsterdam’s only American-owned cannabis cafe.

In his cramped space, Foster said he has helped the likes of Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg and Woody Harrelson get high. “Nationalities mix, people bond. The idea that could go away is too much to imagine.”

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