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What can Canada learn from Amsterdam ahead of marijuana legalization?

Last Updated Mar 7, 2018 at 6:26 pm EDT

Two of my biggest passions are travelling and telling stories. So when I was in Amsterdam last week armed with my cellphone, I combined them both.

I have been curious to see how the federal government will legalize marijuana in this country – and I was fascinated by what I learned talking to people who live in Amsterdam – a city known for it’s “coffeeshops” that in reality sell marijuana.

Over the past forty years they have become part of the culture in Amsterdam. It is as normal as walking into a bar here for a drink.

Surprisingly though the coffeeshops aren’t legal; they are “tolerated” by authorities. The drug laws are a mishmash of grey zones and officials turning a blind eye; you can sell as long as you only have 500 grams of marijuana in a shop at any given time yet it is illegal to buy it and the couriers who deliver the marijuana are vulnerable to charges. It makes no sense whatsoever but somehow they’ve been making it work.

I walked into one coffeeshop and met Giorgio Pal, he has been working there for about two years. He tells me there has been a recent crackdown on coffeeshops in Amsterdam. Over the past couple of years close to half have been closed down by the government. Many because of new zoning rules that don’t allow a coffeeshop to operate within 250 metres of a school.

Giorgio says it has been harder and harder for coffeeshops to survive. “If something happened, if somebody made (a) mistake in (the) coffeeshop, if they found other kind of drugs, if they find alcohol … they close the coffee shop as well.”

“Permanently?” I asked. “Permanently,” he said. “We have a lot of rules. It’s very difficult to hold on to your coffeeshop.”

The government isn’t offering new licenses for the coffeeshops so the fear for some is they will slowly die out.

A few people told me they believe the government wants to close the coffeeshops so it can ultimately control the market and cash in on the lucrative marijuana sales.

Giorgio and others I spoke to believe Canada should also open coffeeshops, they argue they are safer, offer a social environment, and reduce street drugs.

“Just make it legal,” says Giorgio. “And make it legal in every part of it. You need to buy the weed from growers, make it legal to grow marijuana, regulate how they grow it, don’t put too much (sic) chemicals in it, also make it legal to smoke in the coffeeshop so people don’t smoke at home, they don’t smoke behind the wheel, let them smoke in the coffeeshop. It’s more social.”

There is zero tolerance for smoking marijuana and driving in the Netherlands, any trace amount in your system and you will lose your license for a minimum of a year. Everyone I spoke to wholeheartedly agreed with that law, while here in Canada the federal government is considering allowing small amounts in the system.

I’m told the coffeeshops are mainly used by tourists – government stats show about 30 per cent will visit a coffeeshop.

Lotte Beerman, a resident of Amsterdam tells me she supports the coffeeshops although she has some concerns. “I think in Amsterdam it’s a big tourist attraction which I don’t think is a good thing for our city, but I think the cafes are a positive thing.”

I asked her if she ever uses them. “Only when I have a friend from abroad visiting,” she laughs.

Her advice for Canada?  “I would say … just have a few, not over do it, and just have it to relax and have fun.”

My taxi driver tells me there has been a marketing push for Amsterdam to be known for more than just the red light district and marijuana and I have to say it’s true, this is a stunning city with exquisite architecture, great food and amazing museums.

Amsterdam has a remarkable creative, cool energy that I’ve never quite seen before. I mentioned that to my cab driver who jokingly said to me, “that’s because everyone is high.”