My close American friend and teacher Carla, recently invited me to join her on a five day trip to Amsterdam, Holland. I first met Carla during my trip back to Northern California in the mid ‘90s, when I was on sabbatical leave and subbed for her in primary school. Carla had always dreamt of visiting Amsterdam and the idea of finally seeing both the Van Gogh museum and Anne Frank’s house first hand swept me away. I also have Dutch friends here in my little corner of Burgundy and the trip was a great opportunity to get to know their culture just a little better.
Once we had learned to dodge the hundreds of speeding bicycles and have properly taken in the beauty of Amsterdam’s canal life, we were ready to attack the National Rilke Gallery and Van Gogh’s work of genius. At the end of a morning among the masters, we set off to have lunch in a little restaurant adjacent to the two museums. The restaurant opened onto a central park and, after lunch we stepped out onto the covered terrace to savour our coffee. As we were speaking, an acrid odour coming from a nearby bench suddenly drew our attention. We immediately recognized that it wasn’t cigarette tobacco, but pot smoke we were smelling.
Let’s make it clear, be it cloned, hybrid, natural or an improved variety, and whatever part of the Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica plant you may choose to consume, pot is not “legal” in Holland, it is merely “tolerated” and, even then, less and less nowadays. (The official policy of tolerance allows the possession of no more than 5 grams of cannabis in a public area or 30 grams in a private area, as well as the cultivation of no more than 5 plants). We did happen ineluctably by the Hash, Hemp and Marijuana museum, dedicated to the history of the plants, but none of the cafés we dropped into offered anything but food or drink. It is also true that, except that one day, we never saw anyone else either smoking or attempting to sell pot in public during those five days.
Hoping to discourage the criminality connected with importations from countries such as Afghanistan, Lebanon or Morocco, and the heavy drug oriented “tourism” flowing into southern cities like Maastricht from Germany and Belgium, after first putting into effect a ban on sale to foreigners and forcing nationals to become “members” of such coffee shops as of Jan. 1, the new Dutch government has finally decided to allow local Dutch councils to decide who gets to smoke pot on their territory.
So why is pot tolerated in Holland since it isn’t anywhere else in Europe? Basically in order to discourage a black market and allow the police to control what goes into the stuff people are absorbing into their lungs. The BBC is at present emitting warnings that glass pearls have been found in the cannabis crystals imported into Britain, probably intended to increase the weight of the product. If some British doctors suggest that regular use of strong varieties of pot – those produced at home rather than imported – are more harmful and can leave permanent damage, not to your brain, but to your lungs, we can only imagine what inhaling glass can do to one’s respiratory system?
So what is the situation in France? Where I lived a couple of years ago, above an elementary school in another nearby village, there was traffic of pot going on every evening. Big black Mercedes cars came and went and an unmarked police van was stationed under our windows regularly at 3:00 a.m. We need only to keep in mind France’s close post-colonial links to such regions as Morocco in Northern Africa and to Lebanon. My middle school students called this “business” as in…”If I fail school, I’ll go into ‘business.'”
A country once known for its heavy “Gitanes” cigarettes, France has now banned smoking in most public places and the French Parliament is working on a bill that would make France the second only country in the world, after Australia, to demand cigarette packaging without brand names. As for pot, France has, since 1970, some of the strictest laws in all of Europe concerning drug use, cannabis included. Maximum “punishment” included one year in prison and a 3, 750€ fine. But its strict laws haven’t had much real effect.
France remains one of the European countries with the highest rate of consummation: 39% of all 15 – 17 year olds in France declare having smoked pot at least once in their lives, as opposed to 17% for the rest of Europe, the Netherlands included. For the moment François Holland has opposed legalising the use of cannabis, but it is still a question of lightening the penalties connected to the use of the drug.
For those who haven’t been tempted by the experience, myself included, you can always learn more directly about what it feels like to smoke pot by watching a documentary on the Web called “Should I Smoke Dope?” by British journalist Nicky Taylor. Taylor spent one month in Holland under laboratory surveillance, comparing the different types of pot and their physical effects on her as opposed, for example, to those of alcohol.
Nicky discovered that, according to the type and strength of the product, there were basically two sorts of emotional possibilities connected to pot. A light product seems to produce giddiness, open the appetite, reduce the desire to concentrate – everything becoming hilarious. A strong product has the opposite effect; everything becomes depressing and even threatening, so all you want to do is to withdraw from the world as you curl up in a warm corner to pout. And considering the ice and snow outside our kitchen window that is covering France in general this winter, neither I, nor our cat Max, will need to smoke pot for that!