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The law, the law…

11/02/2012

The mayor of Amsterdam has announced that the city’s cannabis coffee shops will remain open, today’s Independent reports.  This follows a move to force them to only provide this for those able to prove residency. With tourism such a huge draw and over 90% of the coffee shops customers being tourists, it has been argued that the economy would suffer.  However the mayor has argued that this move would merely increase criminality and anti social behaviour.

What has really impressed me with the Dutch people I have met is how they never touch cannabis.  Most of the  local students I meet all tell me that it is something that they do as teenagers, and then get bored with the idea.  The dynamic nature of Dutch society makes the use of such a depressant a hindrance to fully experiencing life.  That is not to say that the Dutch are puritanical in their social mores, every weekend the bars and cafeterias are full of people enjoying a drink and having a good time.  This is very much a social occasion, and hardly ever see Dutch people drinking with the reckless abandon that seems to blight British and Irish city centres.

By contrast the red light district is often packed with tourists who are filled to the gills with cannabis, alcohol and hedonism.  I was reminded of the sense of escape which tourism provides in reading A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid.  The end of the first chapter contains the following passage;

“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain.  For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere.  Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this.  Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour.  (Kincaid, 18)

It reminds me of an old joke I heard years ago, about a woman who notices her neighbour poking around her garden.  “What are you looking for?” she asks.  “My glasses”, came the reply.

 “And where did you leave them?”  

“Inside.”

“But why are you looking outside?”

“Because the light is better out here!”

It just goes to show that with so many people trying to find something, it always seems better to look somewhere else, but looking inside is perhaps the best place to start.  Thoreau once said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and it seems that especially in these dire economic times that we need to become fully alive to a broader range of possibilities.  The sight of groups of loud young men staggering around Amsterdam in search of some kind of freedom in hedonism is no longer just intimidating, it is quite depressing as well.

Would the legalisation of cannabis in their countries of origin make it as boring to them as it is to most  Dutch people?  Perhaps it could be compared to the use and abuse of our notorious legal drub, alcohol.  This is abused to extremes in many countries, as many readers in Britain and Ireland will be all too aware.  My own opinion is that alcohol and drug abuse are all to often both a symptom and a cause of wider social problems.  It is continuing against a backdrop of high unemployment and limited opportunities for many young people today, many of whom will spend their lives trying to climb a very slippery slope and catch up with the living standards and work experience of an older generation.

I still have mixed feelings about the legalization of cannabis.  I do realise that illegality makes huge profits for criminal gangs, and wonder if its legalisation elsewhere would lead to similar issues in other countries.  Perhaps the universal availability of marijuana and prostitution would see a decrease in drugs and sex tourism to Amsterdam, and that in every country those who would abuse this freedom is a small minority anyway.  It is just that the toleration of this here that concentrates one and a half million tourists from all over the world in this country, and being away from a familiar environment that acts as a licence to such extreme hedonism.

Perhaps one could be cynical and suggest that the Dutch could not do without the money that tourism brings in, when the world is mired in recession and the Netherlands has few natural resources.  With over 90% of consumers of cannabis being foreign, it clearly is a moneyspinner that cannot be ignored.  However the counter argument is that money is spent on it in every country, but elsewhere the money is firmly in the hands of large and very organised criminal gangs, most of whom are quite diversified in their dealings.  This means that it co-exists with violence, and that the profits from its sale often fund other forms of criminality.  So in that instance I agree with what the mayor has said, and that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the lesser of two evils.

It is a shame that the interest of many visitors to Amsterdam never goes further than this hedonism, as it contains numerous museums, art galleries and beautiful buildings to admire.  The city has always been more advanced than its European neighbours in many respects.  In the seventeenth century the comparatively high urbanisation saw a greater focus on trade and industry than elsewhere in Europe, most of which was still predominantly  rural and feudal.  This urbanisation saw the rise of a middle class, which was willing to be tolerant of freedom of thought and religion.  It is surely no accident that many Enlightenment ideas took root here, such as Spinoza for instance  The middle classes are often held to be a sober pious lot, and are often accused of self righteousness and snobbery  This of course brings back the old cliché of the chicken and the egg..  Oscar Wilde turned a popular form of snobbery on its head in saying that, “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”  Perhaps he had a point, and we should all try to liberate ourselves from both material and spiritual poverty to feel truly free.

 

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