This story appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.
Story and photography by Ashley Brechtel
People asked why I was going to Amsterdam, and I’d jokingly tell them that it was for the hookers and weed. But the real reason? Art. At age 30 I was a well-seasoned world traveler, and Amsterdam had been on my bucket list for long enough. It was time to pay a visit to the city that held the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world.
If I was being honest with myself, though, that wasn’t the only thing that lured me to Amsterdam. I knew I’d finally get to try marijuana while I was there, but was also aware that Americans have a bad reputation for overindulging in the cannabis capital. I didn’t want to be a poor example of my country, so I began preparing myself. I googled “smoking pot for beginners” and asked all of my friends for their advice. (It was official, I had turned smoking weed into the lamest thing ever.)
Why a liberal-minded writer would still be a pot neophyte at the age of 30? History.
Most stories of pot begin behind a high school football stadium, or in the basement of a friend’s house that smells of mildew and soft drinks. This story begins when my mother, a 16-year-old whose wardrobe consisted of cut-off shorts, bandanas and Led Zeppelin concert tees, went into labor with me in New Orleans, La. on Oct. 28, 1983. Once admitted to a birthing room at Charity Hospital she promptly went into the bathroom shower and smoked a joint. She knew it’d be her last one for a few days so she took her time, slowly enjoying each puff. The first time I heard this story I turned to her with wide, accusing eyes. “What?” she rebuffed, “I was stressed.”
I have memories of sitting on my dad's lap as a young girl while he passed the communal bud on to the next person, Fleetwood Mac playing in the background. Roach clips — metal, scissor-like instruments used to hold joints so they don’t burn your lips and fingers once the papers singe down — were a common sight in our home. I thought they were beautiful accessories with their attached feathers and beads. I’d clip them in my hair and traipse around our tiny house.
My childhood nickname, partially in response, was “Ashley Roachclip.” It was bestowed upon me by my Uncle Billy, whom everyone lovingly called “One-Legged-Billy” because, well, he only had one leg. The name stuck because when my mom would hang up the telephone and say, “Shit, your maw-maws coming over,” I’d promptly jump up and collect all the marijuana buds from the ashtrays to hide. The grown-ups were amused; I was their little human roach clip.
Weed wasn’t the only recreational drug I saw growing up. I’d watch my parents do cocaine and slip into a senseless state for long periods of time. As my siblings and I grew up, my parents became more aware of our presence and would try to hide their drug use, but we knew what was going on and the effects it had on the adults in our life. My mom eventually realized that it was impossible to be both a good parent and a drug addict. She kicked the habit over 20 years ago as testament to the desire to watch her kids grow up.
While that decision changed the course of our lives, it didn’t exorcise all drugs from it. My dad became sneakier about his use with drug-induced, lackluster hiding places. I’d find pain pills hidden in his nightstand, a baggie in his jean pockets while doing laundry or drug-related paraphernalia in his truck’s glove compartment. Of course, we could also tell by his moods. I’d have to remind myself this was the same man who cried watching me sing my first church solo.
To my point — drugs were drugs were drugs to me. Painkillers, cocaine, methadone, marijuana; I lumped it all together. They were all used in such abundance that, in my mind, they were equally terrible and were the reason that the people I loved couldn’t hold down jobs and were in and out of jail.
I was an observant and responsible child. I credit much of this to being the oldest of four, subbing in as a parent when need be. Thus, as I entered teenagehood, I hung back as my peers smoked and drank. I was certain that addiction was in my blood, and I didn’t want to unleash it (I was that girl who read the Tylenol label three times to make sure that it was indeed two pills I should take and not one.).
By college, I had moved away from home, but had also rediscovered the hemp leaf in a new way. For the first time in my life, I witnessed educated and successful adults who smoked weed without it consuming their lives — and without mixing it with other drugs. This was a completely new concept to me. I’d find myself not walking out of a room when someone lit up a joint. Instead, I would hang out and enjoy the company. But still, if I was offered, I declined.
Friends would ask me why I never smoked, and for awhile I’d ask myself the same question. It had become obvious that marijuana wasn’t what I perceived it to be growing up. Certainly I could enjoy it as socially as I did alcohol. I had no problem indulging in the occasional cocktail, so why was a couple of puffs on a joint any different? But my answer always hinged on one undeniable fact: it’s illegal.
It’s no secret that the United States locks up millions of its citizens for non-violent crimes each year. A 2010 study released by the Center for Economic and Policy Research revealed that nonviolent offenders make up over 60 percent of the prison and jail population. Many of these incarcerations are marijuana-related. Once you’ve been in the prison system, it follows you for the rest of your life. I’ve seen it happen. So my answer changed from, “I’ll never smoke marijuana because it’s bad,” to “I’ll try it if it ever becomes legal, or if I’m in a place where it is legal.”
And in Amsterdam, it’s legal.
My husband and I rented a houseboat docked along a canal in the city center. Our host was a Dutchman who had been living in Amsterdam for 25 years. As he was showing us our accommodations he said, “If you have a question, just ask. Don’t be embarassed. If you’d like to know the proper etiquette for obtaining a prostitute or the best places to purchase marijuana I can tell you. There are no wrong questions.” My husband looked at me before saying, “We definitely plan on smoking weed while we’re here. Any suggestions?” Our host nonchalantly gave us directions to some of his favorite coffeeshops before offering a stern warning, “Do not buy anything from strangers. It’s illegal and dangerous. Only buy in the shops.” Oh, if only this man knew me. I’d just as soon run naked through the Anne Frank house before buying drugs from a stranger.
Not wanting to seem overeager, my first night in Amsterdam was smoke-free. I likened it to deciding to have sex: you don’t want to jump on the first thing that moves. You want to wait for the right moment, maybe enjoy some foreplay. That’s exactly what I thought I was doing by visiting the Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum. I hoped that a visit would be like taking an informational class on marijuana usage. Instead, it was just a collection of bongs and pro-weed posters. It should have been called the “Marijuana is the Best Thing Ever Musuem.”
I actually learned more by simply walking around the city and seeing the drug culture firsthand. As you stroll, it’s obvious that pot is just not a big deal here. Coffeeshops are plentiful and dotted throughout the city, not annexed to a specific part of town as one might think. Many even feature sidewalk patios where customers can enjoy the fresh air while they smoke. Parents walk by, children in tow, without a second glance. This is Amsterdam’s dirty little secret ... there’s no secret.
The next night was the night. I would no longer be a marijuana virgin. My husband and I had dinner where we enjoyed an intelligent and probably popular conversation about the benefits of regulating prostitution. Afterwards, we set out to find the perfect coffeeshop. The first place we entered was very crowded and blaring “Big Poppa” by Biggie Smalls. The whole scene was too intense for me, so we decided to keep looking.
The second coffeeshop was a little more relaxed, playing Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray.” In my head I conjured up an image of a vintage poster with a 1950s housewife smoking a joint and words reading, “Gangster Rap: The Official Music of Getting High.” This made me smile to myself, perhaps making me look as if I were already high. “I should fit in just fine,” I thought.
I sent my husband to buy the goods knowing that I would have made the moment much more awkward than it needed to be with a smartass line like, “Hello, good sir. I would like to purchase one of your finest marijuana cigarettes,” in a British accent, all before tipping my imaginary top hat.
My first few drags were very calculated; I took small puffs and waited long periods between each one just as my friends had instructed. As we sat there splitting our joint, I peered through the haze of smoke and took in my surroundings. What surprised me most was how normal everyone looked. The older couple whose backpacks certainly held gifts for their grandkids back in Ohio sat comfortably next to the group of young people with dreadlocks and skirts presumably made of hemp. The people seemed to vary as much as the menu options, each one in their own little world.
We headed back to our houseboat for the night, and it was safe to say that I was high. Not why-are-there-three-of-you high, but high nonetheless. It felt like being a little bit drunk and a lot stupid all at the same time. We spent the rest of the night laughing at things that weren’t funny and flipping between porn and music videos on the television, staring intently at the screen as if it were a puzzle to be solved.
When I called my dad the next day to tell him that I had tried marijuana he was weirdly proud. “How’d it feel? Nice, right?” he asked. I don’t think he believed that I would actually do it.
During the remainder of our stay, we smoked several more times. One day, we were eating lunch after having just visited a coffeeshop, and I was so in awe of my french fries, shoving several in my husband’s face: “Why is it so long? Look at it. It’s crazy!” The fact that our dining conversation had lowered drastically in quality from just a few days earlier was not lost on me, but this seemed to be how my mind worked when it was high. The effort it took to comprehend the simplest things seemed so great. It was fun, like my brain was on vacation.
Contrary to popular belief, I didn’t spend the majority of my time in Amsterdam high. I did smoke enough to get a feel for the drug and its effects, but this city is too beautiful to not enjoy with all of your senses intact, and it was quite clear that I couldn’t do both.
When people ask me how my trip to Europe was and I explain that Amsterdam was my favorite city, I get the same “I bet it was” response accompanied by a wink and a nudge. But marijuana really played a very small part in my opinion of this place.
There is so much that makes Amsterdam a great city. Sure there are the super-touristy areas boasting one souvenir shop after another, but if you quickly walk past reminding yourself that no one really needs a beanie cap with a glow-in-the-dark marijuana leaf on it you get to the true beauty of this Dutch capital.
With over 60 miles of canals that wind through the city, world-renowned museums and an eclectic mix of cultures, Amsterdam is worth visiting even without the lure of the forbidden. This is a place where bikes far outnumber cars, and french fry stands can be found on every corner (I mean, seriously, can you think of anything better for when you have the munchies?).
The biggest question people seem to have for me since my little adventure is whether or not I’ll be smoking pot on a regular basis. For now, the answer is still no, but only because it is currently still illegal in the state that I live in. But in Colorado and Washington, I’m game.