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Joe's Neighborhood

A visit to a coffee shop

1/22/2014

Red Light districts and “coffee shops” that sell marijuana are what most folks know of the Netherlands. That’s too bad. Don’t get me wrong, vice sells. But illicit drugs and anonymous sex, even if we include rock ‘n’ roll, seems a little unambitious for a bucket list of things you want to do before you die. OK, if you’re the mayor of Toronto in a “drunken stupor,” maybe it would be enough.

Truly, Holland is a magical place for all sorts of reasons besides magic mushrooms, but it seems the naughty kid always gets the attention. My friend, the wonderful Dutch mom Harriet Priester, who is not a fan of marijuana or alcohol, says with a shrug of tolerance, “But the coffee shops are also Holland.” So, in pursuit of all things “Dutch,” off to the coffee shops I go.

I soon stumble across a problem — coffee shops are barred from advertising, which makes the owners and employees skittish about an interview for an international newspaper like Des Moines’ Cityview (apparently they heard about the deliveries in Altoona). Harriet’s two adult sons, however, step up and offer to help. Out the door we go for an adventure.

joes1The coffee shop where the boys take me is nearly kitty-corner to the Noordeinde Palace in The Hague, the working palace of the king of the Netherlands, King Willem-Alexander. Of course. Where else would you put a drug den? The location reflects the Dutch Government’s tolerance of “soft drugs.” The Netherlands decided long ago that the way to control the use of marijuana is to regulate it. The argument is that by legislating the location, the amount and the type of drug available, users won’t be pulled into harder drugs, personal safety will increase and the location won’t become a nuisance to the public. Like its tolerance of prostitution, the Netherlands has decided to go the route of education, regulation and treatment rather than criminalization. Interesting.

Creamers is like every coffee shop I see in my wanderings around The Hague. Large windows open to the street. Bright interior. No skulking dark corners. One more shop on a street of clothing stores, bakeries and butcher shops.

joes2Suzanne, the barmaid, is serving beverages in the section where the public gathers to drink pop, beer or tea — and, yes, smoke marijuana. She sees that I’m wide-eyed as I look around the room. Laughingly, she pours me a beer and chats me up. Yup, I’m a little discombobulated. Part of me is drinking a beer, smiling and looking for patrons to interview; the other part of me is waiting for the Des Moines Police to come busting through the door so we can decide who to charge and with what crime. Is Suzanne an aider and abettor to Delivery of a Controlled Substance or merely an innocent bystander? Should I start writing search warrants for the bicycles outside? Lord, why is everyone sitting so nonchalantly when they should be running for the doors and jumping out windows? It is a topsy-turvy world, and I’m having a hard time finding my balance.

The soft drugs are sold at a small counter to the left, where the marquee announces the current products and prices. Wow. Haze weed and skunk weed. There’s a difference?joes3

The marijuana is displayed in plastic containers at the counter. I ask to see inside one of the containers. It looks suspiciously similar to green raccoon poop. Perhaps this brand of marijuana is like the rumored rare coffee beans that monkeys pass through their intestines for coffee connoisseurs. Are there marijuana connoisseurs? Of course there are.

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon. Business is moderate. Customers appear to range in age from 18 to 60. Thigs, Jake and Quentin are quietly sitting in a booth smoking marijuana and drinking tea.

joes4“We just finished school and had some spare time. And it is more common to smoke weed at 2:30 than have a beer. You’re still capable to do anything. If you have a beer, eventually you end up on the ground. You can’t do homework.”

And do you think smoking weed helps you?

“Marijuana is not bad for you, but it is not good for you. It is smoking a cigarette. It badly affects your health in the same way.”

Maciek sits up at the bar. He is drinking a beer and smoking a joint.

joes5Maciek is from Poland and has been in Holland for 10 years. A friendly guy, he tells of his handy-man job and his ability to do electrical, plumbing, carpentry, the works. Do I have need of a handy-man?

Maciek gets out the fixings for another marijuana cigarette — rolling paper, tobacco, marijuana. He spends quite a bit of time laying out the tobacco, then putting the marijuana on top, and finally, he rolls the paper. I am fascinated. He kindly offers me the finished product. For free. When I decline, his feelings are hurt. So, I buy him a beer. We are friends once again.

joes6My two tour guides, Luc and Rik, patiently sit with me and translate when necessary. They have smoothed the way. I ask the brothers what they think about the coffee shops. Both preach tolerance of marijuana but personally do not imbibe. By the way, they also rarely, if ever, drink alcohol.

To them, “to smoke weed is not a big deal.” They echo the government statement that legalization may save customers from being around harder drugs. But for these two trained power lifters, the bottom line is health. “It is simply healthier to not drink alcohol or smoke.” So they don’t. Period. And out the door we go, leaving behind the drugs, booze and rock ‘n’ roll.

But let me tell you a story before you flip back to the picture of the weed.

In the middle of the 1980s, I successfully convicted a somewhat notorious drug dealer in Des Moines. After the jury returned the verdict, the then-county attorney allowed me to give an interview with the press. Flush with my victory, I recall making a statement about how the jury’s actions would take a major bite out of the drug scene in Des Moines. I may have even said that the defendant’s conviction would make Des Moines a safer town and that we were doing our part in the War on Drugs. And, if I remember correctly, the next day’s paper even referred to the downfall of a “Drug Kingpin.” Wow. What success. What a victory. The world was safe once again.

Here we are. Nearly 30 years later. Drug and alcohol problems are all solved. Isn’t it wonderful?

And there you have it. My visit to a coffee shop. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com.

Barmuda