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Memphis Flyer On the High Road In Holland

Yes, it's true: You can smike all the pot you want in Amsterdam.

By Paul Gerald

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  No matter how often we hear it, Americans are always confused by the simple truth of it: There are places in Amsterdam where you can just walk in and buy pot or hash.

And no matter how beautiful or historic or artistic Amsterdam is, what a lot of people want to hear about when you get back is the hash bars, and the hookers. It's pitiful, but in opening a series of columns on Amsterdam, I've decided to deal with it all.

On my first day in town, a year ago when I was still an occasional smoker, I faced the same pot anxiety: I saw one of "those" coffeeshops, and I wanted to go in and sample some of the goods. But the smidgen of Presbyterianism that got through to me in 32 years rebelled: "You can't just go in there and buy pot! It's not right. Besides, you don't know how it works, and they'll laugh at you."

Well, I gathered up my courage, and fortunately the guy in this place was patient. He's probably used to dealing with squeamish and/or overly enthusiastic Americans. So here's how it works: First, you find a place with the telltale sign in the window. It's a simple little green-and-white sticker that replaced the pot-leaf design after the latter started polluting the view all over that magnificent city. Once inside, you order the mandatory minimum of one drink (coffee or beer) and make your way to the pot counter.

There, under the glass case, are the samples -- up to a few dozen of them, and no matter what pot you've ever seen in your life, you haven't seen pot like the stuff in Holland. It's the stuff stoners dream of, thick and green and sticky, and strong enough to pickle a lifelong user. The various kinds also have names -- AK47, White Widow, Superskunk, Hawaiian Haze, etc. You get it by the amount of money you want to spend, so 10 gilders (about 6 bucks) might get you a pack of buds the size of a big marble or a little corner of hash the size of a pea. Either amount is enough to destroy days at a time.

Faced with such choices as Midnight Madness and Wintergreen Wonder and Black Afghan, I chose some Purple Haze and settled into a corner with a capuccino and a borrowed pipe. Ten minutes later, with the Eagles blasting over the PA and me talking to two guys on fall break from the University of Florida, I had completely forgotten I was in Holland.

There are people who go to Amsterdam primarily, or exclusively, for this experience. I guess there's a certain thrill in sitting down for a beer, laying your stash out on the bar, and rolling a joint. I shared a room in the hostel with some Australians who had spent the day high on mushrooms at the Museum of Modern Art, freaking out on a video-art exhibit. And they were going back the next day, after their third tour at the Heineken Brewery -- the cheapest drunk in town at $1.20 for all you can force down in an hour.

For me, it didn't take long before being stoned in Amsterdam was just like being stoned anywhere else: anti-social, paranoid, brain-fogged, expensive, and generally a waste of time. Especially when it's such high-potency stuff and the people around you aren't speaking English. I decided it was better to have a clear head when you approach the Rembrandts and Van Goghs and the wonderful Dutch countryside.

Not that a lot of my friends believe this, of course. It seems like a lot of guys, especially, want to believe that I smoked eight tons of hash and had sex with 124 hookers. But that's material for psychoanalysis; this is a travel column. For the record, I had little of the smoking and none of the sex, so let's get on with it.

There is a slightly more high-brow end to the Dutch pot scene than you probably think. Some of the folks are serious about smoking, and not just about getting trashed. The size of the scene is impressive on its own: A Web site I tracked down called "Bud's Guide" (coffeeshop-guide.com) lists 452 coffeeshops, 109 growshops, 118 books, and 36 seeds, each of them reviewed for yield, buzz, and taste.

There's even an annual convention called the Cannabis Cup held each Thanksgiving, "a celebration of the spiritual, medicinal, and industrial uses of cannabis." A fee of $200 (package tours are also available through 420 Tours) gets you samples throughout the "coffeeshop crawl" and the right to vote in various categories, as well as admission into growing workshops, council meetings, expositions, and spiritual ceremonies.

I went into one place called The Noon, the only American-owned hash bar in town, and one of the very few I visited that wasn't playing horrible techno-violent-rap music loud enough to add multiple layers to a hash headache.

I asked the owner, a guy from Maryland, to see the selections, and he proceeded to whip out about eight plastic tubs and give me what seemed awfully similar to a wine tasting.

"Okay," he started, "This is our Purple Outdoor bud. It's got an earthy taste with not much harshness, and it's mostly a head buzz. You can smoke this and still, you know, maintain. This is what I smoke when I'm at work."

He poured my cappuccino and handed me a bong to sample the Outdoor. I guess he was right about maintaining, since I remember what he said next.

"This next one is Edelweiss. Beautiful, isn't it? Americans always love to see these little red hairs on the buds. This is our entry for the Cup. It has a real light, aromatic taste and a totally smooth finish. It'll also just about kill ya. You only want to smoke this one late at night when you just want to get plastered."

I didn't, so I skipped the Edelweiss and all those that followed. He went on to show me his hashes -- Moroccan Premier, Nepalese Creme, Shanti Baba, etc. -- but I was still outdoors with the purple stuff. I left an hour or so later, head spinning, trying to remember where I had been before The Noon. Was it an art museum? The Heineken Brewery? Florida?

Whatever. I had done the smoking thing, checked it off the list of things to do in Holland. At least from now on I would know exactly where I was.

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