Amsterdam: The Grey Area
The connoisseur-quality cannabis judge behind Certified Dank, Caitlin Podiak, visits Amsterdam, long thought of as the preeminent global refuge for cannabis lovers, and discovers a decidedly different scene.
The last time I visited Amsterdam I was a college junior and a nightly toker, but all I knew about cannabis was that I liked it. A decade later, I was back — now a bona fide NorCal pot snob, there to celebrate the New Year with my husband, my parents, my sister and my brother-in-law.
We arrived on the penultimate day of 2015 and immediately headed to Grey Area. This grungy little coffeeshop reputed to sell Amsterdam’s dankest cannabis was tightly packed and dimly lit, with stickers covering the walls, death metal thudding at a punishing volume and a line stretching out the door. Harried budtenders rapidly shoved a series of dirty plastic canisters across the counter, each containing a paltry handful of stem-ridden popcorn-sized buds.
If this had been a West Coast dispensary, I would have turned on my heel and walked out empty-handed, but instead I selected a gram of Nevil’s Haze for €13 and Grey Haze for €12. As a San Franciscan with a preference for Haze, I had eagerly anticipated a respite from California’s Kush glut. I also wanted something more sedative, though, and the indica side of the menu was all Kush, so I settled on a gram of Kosher Kush for €16.
Our next stop was the Hash Marijuana & Hemp Museum, which proved to be a convenient crash course for my supportive, but nonsmoking, family. I have inundated them with countless lectures about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, the sordid motives and tactics in the War on Drugs, and the versatile utility of hemp, but visual aids and tangible artifacts make an incredible history easier to believe.
Back at our rented apartment, I climbed several flights of stairs up to the roof deck to smoke some Haze. Both the Nevil’s Haze and Grey Haze were pleasantly fragrant and suitably hazy. After a couple joints and a few glasses of wine, I found myself in an almost maniacal state of gregariousness, until the Kosher Kush finally soothed me to sleep.
On New Year’s Eve we meandered along the canals, dodging bicycles and mopeds, snapping selfies on bridges and nibbling cheese samples. We made our way to Coffeeshop De Tweede Kamer, which had a lovely ambiance but was too crowded to accommodate our group of six, so we moved on to the Rembrandt House Museum.
Then my parents went on an urgent search for a baguette to go with our cheese, and the rest of us managed to find seats at an unassuming coffeeshop called Paradox, which had a laid-back simplicity and hosted a comfortably diverse and respectable crowd of disparate ages and nationalities. We smoked two pre-rolled joints of “Pure Bio” (organic flowers without tobacco) and purchased two €12 grams of Chocolope to go.
At dusk, we boarded a boat for a “Water Colors Cruise” that took us past electrical light sculptures installed around the canals as part of the Amsterdam Light Festival. The artworks ranged from dull and vapid to cool and trippy, and we all giggled as the audio guide ceaselessly reiterated that this year’s festival theme was “friendship.” It was corny and touristy, but to be stoned on a boat, gliding through darkness pierced by colorful glowing lights and reflections twinkling in the water, with a big jar of fancy candy in your purse, is not a bad way to see the city.
A simmering sense of festive excitement crackled in the air like the calm before a storm as we walked back through the Nine Streets district that evening. We returned to the apartment well before midnight, popped open some Champagne, and rolled up the Chocolope, which had a sweet minty lemon flavor and a happy mellow effect.
Fireworks had been going off sporadically all day and began steadily increasing after sunset. At midnight they intensified into an absolutely bonkers barrage. From our roof deck, we watched nonstop explosions not unlike the grand finale of an official fireworks display, except the fireworks surrounded us in every direction and the sustained crescendo did not taper off until nearly 2 a.m.
We all raced up and down the treacherously steep and narrow stairs between the roof and a lower balcony, where we had front-row seats to watch one man diligently setting off an endless supply of fireworks for over an hour, while simultaneously building a bonfire in the street to dispose of dozens of empty boxes. The fire flared up as passers-by tossed in their own empty firework boxes, and at one point a police van swerved past the fire without slowing down, presumably en route to more serious mayhem.
On New Year’s Day, we stopped in at Boerejongens, a clean and classy coffeeshop near the apartment, and bought a gram of Pineapple Haze for €11. This flower was pretty and resinous, with a fluffy springy texture, nice spicy aroma and mild but tasty flavor. The effect was strong and long lasting: a cerebral Haze high with hints of Kush body stone. The strain was stimulating, creative and, like the Nevil’s Haze, so chatty it bordered on belligerent.
I giddily devoured a chocolate-covered mega-stroopwafel at a Christmas market, and then we walked to the Van Gogh Museum but bailed when we saw the line. We decided to take a tram to Centraal Station in the hopes that one of the numerous coffeeshops on the Haarlemmerstraat would have room for us.
Alas, Dampkring and Barney’s both had large crowds gathered outside their doors pressing to get inside, and every other coffeeshop we saw was filled to capacity. There was no space to sit at Green House either, but after waiting in a long line to be told that nearly every strain listed on the menu was either subpar or sold out, we eventually bought a gram of “Bio Organic” Cheese and a gram of Super Lemon Haze for €15 each.
Next door, at Green House Kitchen, we sat down to dinner with two vaporizers on our table. The restaurant does not provide cannabis, but we were invited to vaporize the flowers we had picked up from the neighboring coffeeshop. They did provide a selection of other herbs, so while we puffed on Super Lemon Haze and Cheese with one vaporizer, my parents and sister inhaled chamomile, peppermint, hops, lavender and passionfruit vapors on the other side of the table.
With its elegantly modern atmosphere, healthy and flavorful food, thoughtfully sourced produce, gorgeous plating and solid wine list, Green House Kitchen would be right at home in California. Vaporizing cannabis at an upscale dinner with my parents felt perfectly natural, and the addition of other herbs was delightfully intriguing.
Apart from Green House Kitchen, however, I was underwhelmed by Amsterdam’s cannabis scene. Under the circumstances, it was impossible to properly explore the coffeeshops, but certain aspects were readily apparent.
Cannabis is not technically legal in Amsterdam, only “tolerated,” and this places the plant in a particular cultural context. It is labeled a “soft drug,” too easily classified alongside legal prostitution in the red-light district and perceived as attracting unsavory types and fostering a generally shady vibe. (Meanwhile, binge drinking is far more normalized.) The patchwork of contradictory regulations seems to prevent coffeeshops from stocking sufficient quantities of product or making menus adequately available for perusal.
In California, cannabis is passionately celebrated rather than begrudgingly tolerated. Our medical marijuana laws engender some silly self-righteousness and mild hypocrisy by forcing us to justify all cannabis use as medicinal, but this framework has been useful and appropriate in many ways. Cannabis is essentially wholesome and has established validity as a medicine or wellness supplement. As a social indulgence, it ought to be accorded the same degree of dignity as wine, coffee, cheese or sweets.
Amsterdam is an enchanting city. The iconic canals and quirky old European architecture are charming, and there is an appealingly funky mishmash of artsy weirdness everywhere you look. Although the holiday crowds frustrated our attempts to enjoy coffeeshops and museums, it was a worthwhile tradeoff to absorb the carnivalesque New Year’s energy and witness the most outrageously chaotic fireworks imaginable.
But I came away with the impression that Amsterdam’s cannabis culture has been stagnating while the western United States charges furiously into the future. We may not have coffeeshops yet, but our dispensaries and private cannabis events are more sophisticated, our budtenders are more knowledgeable and consumers are more discerning.
Amsterdam is fun to visit. Coming home to California is even better.
Published in Issue 20 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE.