Early this summer Pharrell Williams, the American singer-songwriter, appeared slightly inebriated on stage at the North Sea Festival in Rotterdam and joyously confessed that he had downed a few shots beforehand. The Dutch audience reacted with a slightly weary smile. The real surprise was that it was just alcohol, and not drugs, that seemed to make Pharrell so exuberantly happy.
For decades, the Dutch have been familiar with American bands and singers appearing high on stage, especially in Amsterdam’s famous “Rock Temple,” Paradiso. We are used to putting up with below-par performances and zonked-out singers losing themselves between songs in endless ramblings about what love really means and what beautiful human beings the Dutch are, and how their wonderful new-found insights originated at the local “coffee shop”—read marijuana shop—which always seems to be just around the corner in major Dutch cities. Most of the time it is an amusing spectacle, seeing well-known performers coming to Holland and behaving like wide-eyed kids in a candy store. And, of course, it is somewhat flattering—for quite a few Americans the Netherlands, in this aspect at least, seems to be truly the land of the free.
It’s not only performers. When Hillary Clinton, as first lady, gave a lecture in a Delft church in the late ‘90s and professed her regret that due to lack of time she would not be able to visit the places in Amsterdam where her husband, coming over from London as an Oxford University graduate student, had enjoyed himself so much, the audience immediately got the joke—probably because they had heard it so many times before.
Today, judging from what I’m hearing from across the Atlantic, America is considering whether to become a lot more like the Dutch. Colorado and Washington state have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and theNew York Times editorial page recently declared that the national ban on marijuana today is even sillier than banning alcohol during Prohibition, saying it is “a substance far less dangerous.”
But before you go there, America, let me tell a little about what it really means to be a High Nation. First of all, we Dutch are not quite as liberal about drugs as you might think. Second, and more important, we’re still very confused—in fact more confused than we ever have been—about how liberal we should be. The truth is, many Dutch are coming to believe that our whole experiment with drug tolerance hasn’t worked out well at all.
Contrary to what many people think, the Dutch generally are not obsessed with drugs, just as they do not have Anne Frank or Vincent van Gogh on their mind most of the time. Where I live, in the center of Amsterdam, there are a quite a few of those uniquely Dutch coffee shops, but I hardly go there—not out of principle, but because most of the time I have better things to do than getting high. For many people they are just part of everyday life. For us they do not have the aura of naughtiness — of being allowed to do something that is joyfully transgressive — that they have for foreign visitors. Smoking cannabis in Holland is not a statement or an act of social defiance. It’s no longer part of any kind of exciting counterculture whatsoever—you just have to like it. If you do, enjoy. If not, you can just have a cup of coffee.
The other myth is that drugs are simply legal in the Netherlands. They are not—and that goes for hard and soft drugs. Soft drugs are just officially “tolerated.” And there the problem starts. As a Dutch citizen you are allowed to buy small quantities of soft drugs for your personal use, but you are forbidden from growing weed for commercial purposes. If this seems confusing for an outsider, it is also so for the Dutch themselves—one could say we have struggled for decades with the consequences of our own so-calledgedoogbeleid, our famous policy of drug toleration. It has created a completely illogical situation for the coffee shops, which are, bizarrely, both legal and illegal at the same time. They are allowed, under strict conditions, to sell soft drugs at the “front door”—but having drugs delivered to their shops, the business that happens at the “backdoor,” is still regarded as criminal activity.