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Coffee and cannabis

"Soft drugs" such as marijuana and hashish are technically illegal in the Netherlands, but they're tolerated within certain limits. Small-scale production and use aren't prosecuted, and "coffeeshops" are allowed to sell cannabis as long as they're discreet. Imagine your local Starbucks with a hashish counter in the back where you can choose from a selection of your favorite leaves and smoke a joint with your Frappucino.

Thanks to this relaxed policy toward grass, Amsterdam attracts latter-day hippies from all over Europe (along with a fair-sized contingent from the U.S. and Canada). In Travels as a Brussels Scout, Nick Middleton describes being with a group of British acquaintances who were in Amsterdam on a drug holiday:

The soft drug culture was all around us, although most of the participants seemed to be foreigners. There was a fellow Englishman who worked in my hotel who always looked at the list when I asked for my key and said, "Mr.Middleton, yeah?"

"That's right," I would reply and he would counter, "Sorry, I won't ask next time. I've got a pretty shit memory and unfortunately I'm in the wrong place to get it back."

Rick Steves, too, has comments on the Amsterdam drug scene in his Postcards from Europe. He writes about a visit to the Grey Area Café, a coffeeshop near the Ann Frank House:

Alone with the younger guy, I ask him about the sign with a delivery boy on it.

"In Holland we have pot delivery services," he explains, "like you have pizza delivery in America. Older people take out or have it delivered."

Steves adds:

"This coffee shop would never be possible in the United States," I say.

"I know," Peter, the bartender, agrees. He shows me the snapshops of Woody Harrelson and Willy Nelson , each in the obscure little coffee shop, and continues, "America's two most famous pot smokers told me all about America."

Unfortunately, there's a dark side to drug policy in the Netherlands, which is based on tolerance without legalization: Organized crime reportedly is involved in the growing and distribution of marijuana, and more dangerous drugs such as "ecstasy" are becoming increasingly popular. For more on these problems, see David Downie's "Going Dutch" article in Salon

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