Amsterdam before America was legal

Amsterdam. Home to the Heineken brewery, the Anne Frank and Van Gogh museums, and an infamous red-light district.

But if you were a child of the 1970s, the word “Amsterdam” meant the “Disneyland” of drugs.

It was — and is — a mecca for the cool and the bold. A visit to this utopian stronghold certified your hippie quotient overnight, and allowed you to say with a yawn, “Yeah, I’ve been to Amsterdam.”

The stories, legends, and myths of Amsterdam were the building blocks of dreams — especially for the uninitiated or unenlightened, those who only thought about growing their hair longer.

The illicit appeal of Amsterdam became my Shangri-La. And I couldn’t wait.

The word was, “Don’t fly into the Netherlands, you don’t want the first stamp in your passport to be Amsterdam. If you do, customs is gonna be a pain wherever go.” Armed with that knowledge, my traveling companion — the longhair from down my street — and I landed in Paris.

By the time we hit the Left Bank — with the wait time in Chicago for the overseas flight, the flight with a stop in Iceland and customs — we’d been without weed for almost 48 hours. We’d save the Louvre for later. We went straight from The City of Lights to the City of Earthly Delights, via one of the slowest boats ever.

The first glimpse of Amsterdam was confusing. The sheen from the lights of the buildings and shops that hugged the harbor radiated in the flat blue water like an architect’s presentation model. It appeared too European normal.

For a second, a rise of paranoia crept in. I think I was expecting a fleet of smart white Mercedes Benz trucks labeled “Hashish” in bold letters scurrying around the canals delivering my waiting stash to the clubs and coffeehouses around town. From the front of our water taxi, Amsterdam looked too clean, sedate, not wild and wooly as I had imagined. It could have been Brussels — I couldn’t tell.

Maybe the dream wasn’t real. But other fellow travelers on board began to get antsy gripping the guard rail with thoughts of the illicit cornucopia that awaited. By the time we docked, any residue of fear was gone. We hit the beach like pirates in anticipation of our Dutch treats.

I think I had the same feeling gamblers have when they arrive in Vegas. I’ve seen them exiting the plane while reaching into their wallets for twenties, ready for action. Drooling in anticipation of the scene that was slowly approaching, I was ready to be the pothead’s version of Augustus Gloop, the greedy chocolate-smeared kid from Willy Wonka.

That was in 1977. Then, the fear of getting busted in Europe was great. There were PSAs on TV with Hal Holbrook’s rich caring voice telling us potential druggies that if we get busted overseas, we’re in for the hassle of our lives. Paranoia ran deep — yet the need to get high ran deeper.

One thing I’ve learned while traveling around the world and trying to score drugs while doing it is that there’s a rip-off gauntlet one has to endure before hitting the real goods. As the newcomers descended the gangplank, street hustlers searched the herd for the weakest. Their greed is matched only by the ignorance and desire of the pilgrims searching for the fabled wares of Amsterdam.

Sadly, for many, this means licorice.

European licorice is hard and black, with shades and swirls of grays and reds. Also, if you put a lighter to a cube of licorice, it smells a lot like Afghani hash. So if you’re nervous about copping on the street and you’re not sure about the guy who’s in front of you, you don’t what to be busted, and you have about five seconds to make a decision … long story short, the longhair and I bought about 20 grams of licorice before getting to our hash bar/hotel, where we finally found the real deal.

Inside, the world we expected was open and ready for biz. At the bar, we ordered food, a couple of beers, a few grams of Lebanese blond hash, four pre-rolls, and some Durban Poison. About 40 minutes into our dinner, both of us were done. We finished the food and beers, collected our goods, and told the kind bartender/hotel keeper, “We’re bushed. We’re going to crash and be back later.”

And that’s when the worm turned. As I fell out for some much needed sleep clutching the Durban Poison, other patrons in the hotel weren’t as dormant.

We woke up like boxers ready for a big fight. Or, as boxing might be a tad too violent of a metaphor, we woke up like hippies who had been dreaming of smoking their body weight in foreign weed.

A quick basin bath and we were out the door, prepared for the trip of our lives. We were in Amsterdam goddammit. No time to delay.

The hash bar/hotel had two flights of stairs with a landing in the middle that led to the main room. As we descended from the top of stairs dressed like Glenn Frey and the rest of the Eagles had a closet sale, in blue jeans and rock and roll T-shirts under blue cotton work shirts, we heard a round of applause. The patrons below seated along this long hardwood bar that ran the length of the room opposite of the front doors were feting someone. By the time we came to the middle landing, looking around to see for whom they were clapping, we realized it was us.

We came down to the bar unsure of what was happening. After receiving numerous back slaps on the way and exhortations of “Way to go,” we got the story.

While we slept, two women had been attacked in their hotel room. A couple of young Yanks had heroically come to their rescue. The attackers fled into the night, and the two American heroes had unpretentiously retired back to their room once the women were saved.

That story was true. But no matter how much we insisted that we were not the two Americans who saved the damsels, it was fruitless. It was either that we looked exactly like the other two — or worse, they thought we were being modest, just like the cowboys in the movies.

We hadn’t earned it, but that night in Amsterdam, we were heroes to the people in the bar and there was nothing we could do about it. It was free hash and free rent for the rest of the weekend in addition to the big smiles every time we made a visit.

It was too weird.

Dreams were coming true. Yet I didn’t like Amsterdam. There was so much cool stuff, the museums and the ex-pats living in their houseboats in the canals. I met a few strange and wonderful characters, including a few ganja pioneers whose little shelf in their houseboat would later propel them into becoming major players in the global cannabis seed industry. But the tourists made you feel like it was New Year’s around the clock. An endless amateur hour. I’ll take a Humboldt back road in a rental car at midnight over a town full of ugly Americans and other Westerners on a binge. It was as if it was an excuse to be sloppy.

When asked about Amsterdam, without going into the real story, I’m apt to say, “I spent a month there one weekend.” I thought I’d love it. In reality, I didn’t. Still, it did provide me a place to score enough weed that would last me the length of Europe. That was enough — or enough to last the four months of vagabonding until I smoked that last doob on an old German pillbox in Corsica while overlooking the Mediterranean.

Yes, it’s a great place for supplies.

Like a Shriner’s pilgrimage to Vegas, I sure many travelers do an annual to Amsterdam. I know that I’m in the minority that could take it or leave it. This was a lesson I had to go to find out for myself. That, and my taste for European licorice.