Not quite anything goes in the Netherlands these days. Many Dutch
think their open lifestyle has gone too far; others say new limitations have.
By Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
January 4, 2008
The vacation sort of just flew by.
After dropping their packs at a hostel, Ryan Ainsworth and his buddy
Richie Bendelow found a shop selling 500 herbal potions that promised
to make them high and happy in 500 ways. But the young British
tourists went right for the hallucinogenic mushrooms, packaged in
clear plastic containers just like the ordinary ones at the
greengrocer back home.
The pair took the tips sheet that advised first boiling the mushrooms
into a tea "to speed up the effect." It also warned against taking
them with hard drugs or alcohol but that "a marijuana joint is no
problem and can give you a positive, relaxing feeling."
These guys didn't need advice -- they'd cut loose before in this
haven of libertine values and elegant canals. After forking over $24,
they made their way to the lush Vondelpark and between them gobbled
up the entire box.
The next day, as they were leaving a coffeehouse where they'd bought
half a gram of marijuana, they had little to say about the afternoon
in the park. "Hey, it's holiday in Holland," said Ainsworth, a
22-year-old kayaking instructor. "Anything goes."
But it may be last call for drugs, sex and live-and-let-live in the
Netherlands, one of the most famously broad-minded countries in the world.
Prostitution, abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and magic
mushrooms have long been legal here, and soft drugs such as marijuana
are technically illegal but are sold with official sanction in small
amounts in "coffeehouses." In recent years, however, uneasiness over
an influx of Muslim and black immigrants as well as a lifestyle that
many believe has gone too far have shifted the Dutch mood away from
tolerance and infinite permissiveness.
In 2006, parliament stopped coffeehouses from selling alcohol if they
sell marijuana; now, legislators are negotiating to have them located
at least 250 yards from schools. This year, a ban on the sale of
hallucinogenic mushrooms goes into effect.
"I've been in this business 15 years, and we have never felt so much
pressure," said Olaf Van Tulder, manager of the Green House, part of
a chain of popular coffeehouses owned by a Dutchman whom High Times
magazine has dubbed the "King of Cannabis."
It was only 10 on a recent midweek morning, but already the dealers
at the marijuana bar in the back of the Green House were busily
weighing marijuana on a small scale and most of the tables were taken
by customers rolling joints.
Almost nobody was drinking coffee.
Two young Italians, who already looked a bit wasted, raised two
fingers each and pointed to the most expensive hash on the menu, the
Dutch Ice-Olator Supreme at $51.80 a gram. Eduardo, the affable
dealer, poured out two grams each into a bag, showed the Italians the
price on a calculator and waved them off with "Ciao babies!"
Business is good, sure, but the daily struggle with a new drug
policing unit has Van Tulder feeling under siege. "Even if there's
just a motorbike double-parked out front, they'll shut us down," he says.
Like most natives, Van Tulder, 35, doesn't use marijuana often, but
he is concerned that conservative politics will kill Dutch culture:
"Listen, these people want to put their religion in society, and I
think Amsterdam is dying because of it. It's nice to escape a little
Joel Voordewind grew up in this city reveling in the punk music
scene, and playing drums in a band called No Longer Music (because it
was so loud). But he never felt comfortable with Amsterdam's drug use
and prostitution and as a kid avoided its red-light district "because
you'd get in trouble there."
Now this tall, boyish-looking son of an evangelical pastor is 42 and
a member of parliament. His Christian Union Party, which bases much
of its policy on biblical doctrine, is trying to remake a government
that in his estimation has been morally adrift. Although his party
controls only two of 16 ministries, it aligned with liberals to fight
for refugees, poor families and the environment while also condemning
homosexuality, euthanasia, abortion and youthful experimentation
"The people are fed up with the lazy attitude of government. We call
it, 'If it's forbidden, we let it go.' Like soft drugs. It's
forbidden, but we look the other way," he said, sipping coffee in a
bar at the Amsterdam train station. "We have a lot of that kind of
policy, and it has given people the feeling that the government was
telling them to go their own way."
Although tolerance and diversity have long been a matter of national
pride, a series of shocking events has made the Dutch more open to "a
firm government with outspoken norms and values," he said.
The killings of maverick populist politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and
filmmaker Theo Van Gogh two years later, both of whom fanned fears of
Islamic extremism, have traumatized this predominantly white,
The outward-looking Dutch welcomed the newcomers -- and their mosques
and Islamic schools -- but have grown less tolerant toward those who
don't share their brand of tolerance. And they're also asking
themselves why they're inviting tourists to get stoned in their parks
and allowing graceful neighborhoods to devolve into lurid Disneylands
with sex clubs and massage parlors.
Amsterdam has the most famous and historic red-light district in
Western Europe. Although after eight centuries it is unlikely to
disappear any time soon, it is in the midst of reinvention.
Last month, Amsterdam's mayor and City Council unveiled a plan to
squeeze out brothels and escort services by forcing their owners to
apply for permits and by raising the minimum age of prostitutes to 21
from 18. The city is also spending $37 million to buy out a landlord
who owns a quarter of the city's buildings where nearly naked women
pose behind display windows, red light literally flashing over their heads.
If the City Council gets its way, windows featuring women for sale
will give way to displays featuring women's clothes for sale, and
historic buildings will be restored to attract upmarket hotels and
restaurants, with the remaining brothels clustered on a just few streets.
"The romantic picture of the area is outdated if you see the abuses
in the sex industry, and that is why the council has to act,"
Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen, a member of the Labor Party, said at a
news conference announcing the changes. "We don't want to get rid of
prostitution, but we do want to cut crime significantly."
Local politicians across the Netherlands have concluded that by
legalizing prostitution in 2000, they opened up their cities to
international crime organizations trafficking in women, children and
hard drugs. The authorities want to wipe out the crime and are also
weary of boozy weekend trippers ogling prostitutes and buying illegal
drugs on the streets.
In fact, these openly seedy scenes come as a bit of a surprise in
this beautiful city full of old churches and bikes -- about 600,000
of them serving 750,000 people. In the central neighborhood, the
streets are lined with 17th and 18th century buildings, many with
stores quaintly selling clogs and wheels of cheese or old bookshops
But turn a corner and there in a window like a mannequin come to life
is a young Polish woman spilling out of her bikini. Above her window
is a number and the red-neon tube light. As she shifts poses, with
her shoulders back and chin out, she tries to remain perched on a high stool.
A few windows down are two older-looking Dominican women dressed in
matching white underwear and sharing a fat joint; they look bored and
frozen. Nearby, a girl in a black leather bathing suit -- she's Dutch
with long blond hair -- is talking on a cellphone while winking and
blowing kisses at a clutch of Russian men.
The men circle back a couple of times, but the Dutch girl gets to
size them up, and when they don't look promising she slides off her
stool and flops on a single bed in her tiny room. She closes her eyes.
Marisha Majoor, who runs the Prostitution Information Center, began
walking these streets 20 years ago when almost all the prostitutes
were Dutch and the trade was less organized. She eventually quit and
started the center, a small storefront next to one of Amsterdam's
oldest churches. It operates, more or less, like any other tourist
gift shop, except it sells dozens of sex-related items, such as
lipsticks in the shape of penises and refrigerator magnets featuring
Majoor, now 37, is convinced that the new concern about the
exploitation of women and crime is simply a ploy to see these areas
gentrified and, from her perspective, only means that more
prostitutes will be forced to work in unsafe conditions.
She also attributes the new anxiety about red-light districts to a
fear of migrants.
"For many women in the world, working in the Netherlands is so much
better than working in their own country," Majoor said.
While she is talking, a young British tourist stops by to find out
how much the women in the window charge ($52 to $74 for 10 to 15
minutes). When the young man asks about safe sex, Majoor's co-worker
sells him a "Pleasure Guide" with the pertinent warnings and facts.
Voordewind would like to see his native city's red-light district
radically changed. He recently proposed turning it into an artists'
colony like Paris' Montmartre. He'd have the city buy the remaining
windows and restore the buildings to their original beauty and open
them for artists' studios and galleries.
"The district is now a tourist attraction not because of the nice
buildings, but because of the windows," he said. "It's very a sad
situation. . . . I want it completely changed."