Kristin and I just got back from an amazing and unusual week in Amsterdam.
Some months ago, I wrote an essay called "Why are we Lying to our Children?", in which I called for honesty, rather than scare tactics, in the way we educate our kids about marijuana. Since putting it up here on the web, I've gotten into a number of discussions over the merits of legalization. I've also done extensive reading on the subject, though the information I've found, particularly as regards the dangers of the drug, has been highly contradictory. And when there are two conflicting sides to a story that both purport to be true, then there are also falsehoods, and with them, a need to search for better answers.
During one of those discussions, my sister-in-law Ruth, who's never tried pot, asked "What is so great about marijuana that people are willing to break the law to use it?" Since I too had resisted the peer pressure to try pot while growing up, I could not answer her question. At the same time, I knew I needed to if I were ever going to understand both sides of this thorny issue.
Then in September, I came into some money, through an advance on royalties for the licensing of my card game, Fluxx. I knew right away what I had to do with that money: take a vacation to Amsterdam, one of the few places place in the world where I could smoke pot legally, and find out for myself what the fuss is about.
Then I learned that High Times magazine holds a convention there every year, called the Cannabis Cup, in which a couple of thousand people, mostly Americans, descend upon this outpost of sanity in the drug-war crazy world, to confer on their on-going efforts towards legalization and to rate the quality of the new strains of the plant that had been developed during the past year.
Having already decided to go to Amsterdam to experience the pot-smoking scene, going to the Cannabis Cup was an easy decision. At that point, it became not a vacation, but a research expedition, a voyage of discovery, a journey into the heart of darkness. I was going not merely to satisfy my own curiosity... I would be a reporter. I went to Amsterdam in order find answers, not just for myself, but for everyone who missed out on the marijuana experience while growing up and now needs honest and open answers to the question of what it really is all about. I took extensive notes during the trip, and I've compiled those notes here, in this report.
I was joined on this expedition by my lovely wife Kristin, who smoked pot frequently while in college but stopped when we got married because I told her I wasn't comfortable with it being in the house.
I learned so many things on this trip that it's hard to know where to begin. I guess the obvious first question is, what is smoking pot really like? The truth is, it's great. I really, really liked it. I see now why it's so popular. I've tried drinking alcohol on a number of occasions and never really cared for it, but smoking grass is a different story altogether. It's fun, and it doesn't leave me feeling ill the next morning. As one who is used to sitting on the sidelines while others are boozing it up and having a ball, I now wish pot was a legal choice for me to make in social situations.
More importantly, the Cannabis Cup opened my eyes to the fact that people who smoke pot are not the wicked and immoral villains that our government has made them out to be. I met many, many pot smokers during our week in Amsterdam, and every single one of them was a decent, hard-working, normal person. Far from being criminals, these people were the nicest, most beautiful, caring people you could ever want to meet. Why are they being persecuted?
More importantly, in spite of the supposed dangers of marijuana, these people (many of whom have been smoking pot for 30 years or more) are not screwed up. I had the opportunity to observe up close the way in which over two thousand hardened stoners cope with the reality of visiting a foreign country while under the constant influence of marijuana (not to mention doing so myself) and they managed it just fine.
I am now completely convinced that cannabis ought to be fully legalized. I just spent a week living in a culture in which smoking pot is not treated as a crime, and it's the nicest, safest city I've ever been to. If marijuana is dangerous enough to warrant an all out war, then why hasn't this society crumbled? On the face of it, the alleged dangers of marijuana appear to be bold faced lies. Why is it illegal? Why must I travel to a foreign country to experience marijuana with a clear conscience? Isn't America supposed to be a free country? It seems to me that marijuana prohibition is unconstitutional.
Not only has Dutch culture flourished for over 20 years in an atmosphere of marijuana tolerance, but people who've been smoking pot for decades appear to be living happy, healthy, normal lives in spite of this habit. The Cannabis Cup was exactly like a science fiction convention, or a dog show, or an antique collector's meeting, or a roller coaster enthusiast's outing, except that the hobby these people share is the smoking of pot. If it weren't for a law that was concocted before the invention of television, this convention would be as normal as a wine tasting party.
Amsterdam is a truly wonderful city. In many ways, it seemed more like an amusement park than a city, although it also seemed like a different planet, with a more advanced and civilized culture than our own. I'm convinced at this point that marijuana legalization is not only a good idea, it's inevitable, so I came to think of this trip as being like a trip into the future, to a time when fear and ignorance no longer dominate our attitudes about cannabis.
The coffeehouses, which are very much like ordinary bars here in America, provide a fascinating glimpse into what that future world will be like for us. The laws appear to be working extremely well. Under the Dutch system, it's OK for you to possess small amounts of marijuana, and it's OK for certain licensed businesses to sell small amounts of marijuana. Smoking it, however, is tolerated only within your own home or within the confines of one of the coffeeshops. These rules are taken quite seriously, and since no one under age 18 is allowed into the coffeeshops, kids have a harder time getting their hands on pot in Amsterdam than they do in our country, where the black market operates on every urban street corner.
We spent most of our time either visiting these coffeeshops or sitting in on sessions of the conference, which combined elements of a trade show, a rock concert, a religious revival, and a political rally, with a fashion show thrown in for good measure. But we did take time out from those events to visit the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House.
I find it ironic that the house in which Anne Frank and her family hid from the nazis is located in Amsterdam. How many "secret annexes" are there in America, in which marijuana gardens are hiding? The War on Drugs teaches us that pot smokers are inferior to "normal" Americans, just as Hitler taught his people that Jews were an inferior race. And just as Hitler gradually stripped away the rights of the Jews, so too has our War on Drugs gradually been chipping away at the Bill of Rights, imposing ever-increasing penalties on people who are fundamentally no different from gardeners, liquor store owners, and beer lovers. How much worse must things get before we as a society demand change?
I went to Amsterdam as a reporter on a fact-finding mission, and returned as a freedom fighter with a mission. The laws against marijuana are wrong, and must be changed. Millions of Americans realize this, yet few have the courage to speak out on this taboo subject. Well, folks, we've got to change that if we have any hope of changing the laws. We all need to start discussing this topic, with honesty and open minds. This is not an issue that will go away by ignoring it.
The War on Drugs is really a war on Personal Freedom. This war must end, but it's only going to if We The People start demanding peace. Remember: You don't have to be a pot smoker to be a freedom fighter. All that's necessary is to realize that pot smokers are ordinary people, people who are tired of being treated as criminals when nothing they do is harmful to anyone but themselves.
Moreover, if you are a pot smoker, you need to stop hiding in the basement and start standing up for your basic human rights. As the saying goes, if you aren't part of the solution, you are part of the problem. According to statistics I've read, there are 80 million Americans who've tried pot, and 25 million who smoke it regularly. You guys need to take a lesson from the gay community and start coming out of the closet. Start by telling just one person the truth about marijuana. Keep bringing it up, at the dinner table or the water cooler, until you get them to realize that cannabis is good medicine, not an evil weed. And when you've got that person convinced, choose someone else. If we tackle this problem one person at a time, I believe we can change the world.
Other ways you can work for peace:
The revolution is coming. Which side will you be on?
I did a lot of reading on the subject of marijuana before deciding to take the plunge and try it for myself. Here are some links to some of the information I read that alleviated my concerns about conducting moderate-use experiments on myself. I've also included some links to relevant sites that I think are worth taking a look at.