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Sex, drugs and second thoughts

Not quite anything goes in the Netherlands these days. Many Dutch think their open lifestyle has gone too far; others say new restrictions have.

January 04, 2008|Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writer

AMSTERDAM — 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 from reality."


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 "with everything."

"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, Christian country.

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