Amsterdam's Cannabis Cafes
Feature by Willard Manus

Three decades ago, the hip, civilized Amsterdammers decided to legalize the cannabis trade. Two dozen of the city’s 400 coffeehouses–-better known as “brown cafes” owing to their venerable, smoke-stained interiors–-were licensed to sell hash and grass over the counter. Actually, the pot trade had been going on for years before that, but in an underground fashion. Now coffee houses could apply to city hall for an official soft-drug permit which allowed for cannabis to be dispensed openly, along with coffee, tea, energy drinks, food and (occasionally) alcohol.

Amsterdam’s policy spread to the rest of the country. Today, there are about 3,000 hash houses throughout Holland, the nation with the lowest hard-drug use in Europe. The policy has worked so well that dozens of other European cities and provinces signed the Frankfurt Accord to implement tolerance in their communities as part of a drug-abuse reduction campaign.

The following guide has been compiled from recommendations by Dutch and American friends presently residing in Amsterdam.

DE ROKERIJ (Lange Leisedwarstraat 43) is the flagship of a coffeehouse chain. Unlike Starbucks, though, this shop not only sells several kinds of high-powered marijuana (such as AK-47, Nepalese Cream, Stardust; approx. $20 a gram) but offers exotic decor fashioned after a scene in Arabian Nights. Indian murals grace the walls, the lighting is soft and sensual, ragas play on the sound system, overhead fans disperse the fumes, cushions and low tables are scattered around the private and communal rooms. On weekends henna tattoo artists and tarot-card readers ply their trade here.

DE DAMPKRING (Handboogstraat 29) is a much more yuppyish place, on the order of a modern, brightly-lit British pub. To make up for its lack of atmosphere, the café offers a huge range of things to smoke. Behind the bar are floor-to-ceiling jars packed with 25 different grasses, 18 hashes, and various kinds of pre-rolled joints. The “Fair Smoke” label identifies which product was organically grown (biological nutrients, no chemical pesticides). A menu not only describes the goodies on sale but rates them (“clear high,” “psychedelic high” and so on). Prices range from $15-$50 a gram, but the house-rolled Tbizia joint is $10.

Celebrity hounds shouldn’t miss GREY AREA (Oude Leliestraat 2), if only because numerous American and British rock musicians unwind here when they’re in town. GREY AREA is a small, dim joint with nondescript decor, but cannabis connoisseurs have praised its wares, especially a hash called Grey Mist ($20 a gram), which won second prize at the Cannabis Cup some years back.

The Cup, an annual competition (only authorized coffee-shops can enter it), is a widely-promoted public event, another example of the Dutch experience–-live and let live where drugs are concerned. Not only is cannabis legal in Amsterdam, so is prostitution; the red-light district with its famous ”girls in the windows” is sanctioned and policed by the authorities. The Dutch have also licensed a brothel that caters exclusively to disabled people.

KATSU (Eeerste van der Helstraat 102) is a bit off the beaten track, but has a cozy, unpretentious neighborhood feel (“gezellis” in Dutch). The Supersage on sale here ($10 a gram) is what locals call a “kopstoot,” a knock on the head.

BARNEY’S BREAKFAST BAR (Haarlemmerstraat 102) is just that, a good place to start the day. The menu is large and varied, with such American dishes as waffles and pancakes as well. But the real specialty is Sweet Tooth ($12 a gram), another perennial winner at the Cannabis Cup. It is like having your bell rung by a kick-boxer.

The big winner at the Cup, year in and year out, is GREENHOUSE (Oudezijds Voorburgwaal 191). The coffee-house has won some three dozen prizes in recent years, all of which are proudly displayed in its showcases. Among the famous brands are Shanti’s Holy Balls, Shanti Baba and King Hassan Elite. The hash house draws big crowds, but they are scattered around the spacious, spot-lit lounge with its comfortable leather couches and chairs. The Big Bang (approx. $10 a gram) never fails to live up to its name.

It’s not advisable to get too stoned in Amsterdam, if only because it’s such a liquid city. Last year, for example, half a dozen people died by falling into one of the city’s swift-running canals and rivers. All of them were pot tourists.