“Oh…Amsterdam. That’s, um, interesting.” Comments like this, often accompanied with a knowing look, became expected anytime I mentioned the destination of my semester abroad. Even my parents were surprised I didn’t want to go somewhere more “mainstream,” assuming I’d want to live out my Lizzie McGuire dreams in Rome or go to English-speaking London. Their understanding of Amsterdam was centered around one thing: marijuana.
Though becoming increasingly legalized in the states, it’s no secret that weed is a popular recreational drug among American college students. In many states, including New York, getting caught with marijuana is a criminal offense and can lead to jail time. Meanwhile in Amsterdam, anyone over 18 can go to a “coffee shop” and choose from an endless variety of weed products.
Marijuana in Amsterdam is a tourist industry, much like legalized prostitution. The government does not restrict not these images and feels that, since people will do what they want regardless of legality, they might as well do it in the safest way possible. For this reason, controversial signs have been put up in several places throughout the city, warning that drug dealers were selling white heroin as cocaine, resulting in the deaths of three tourists. There are places in Amsterdam where you can take the drugs you purchased, and they will test them to see what you actually bought. This possession of illegal drugs will not incriminate you, since there is a focus is on wellbeing rather than punishment.
Another source of Amsterdam’s infamy is the Red Light District, the center of legalized prostitution. In reality, this is a very small area of the city, frequented only after dark and primarily by tourists. Prostitution was legalized because it can be regulated. The working girls have buttons in their rooms, which call the police if they are in danger. Instead of working for a pimp, they are able to work for themselves in a safer environment.
Upon my arrival in Amsterdam, I was surprised to learn that most Dutch people don’t smoke weed. Only around 20 percent of the Dutch population has ever used marijuana, and that percentage is doubled in the U.S. While it is readily available here in Amsterdam, it’s technically not legal. It is simply tolerated by the government because they are dealing with more pressing matters. For instance, keeping the city afloat. I wish the American government would worry more about lowering the interest rates on my student loans or making sure my parents have dental insurance when they’re retired, instead of fixating on marijuana legislation.
In a broader scope, the Netherlands has bested the United States in a number of categories. For example, the homicide rate in the Netherlands is 80 percent lower than in America, perhaps due to the strict gun laws. I volunteered as an English teacher at a Dutch elementary school, and one of the first questions the kids asked me was if I owned a gun (the second was if I had ever met Bruno Mars). The Netherlands also has fewer drug-related deaths and a lower prison population. The police are unarmed, the unemployment rate is lower and there is no national debt. Clearly, this country is doing something right.
However, none of these factors influenced my decision to spend a semester here. I wanted to go to a city that was a less popular destination, a city where English is widely spoken and a city that would quickly feel like home. For me, Amsterdam ticked all these boxes. A place where buying a stolen bike is more frowned upon than smoking marijuana, I have spent four months in the most beautiful city in the world. A place where the only kind of transportation you need is a bicycle, (I do not miss the D train at all) and eating chocolate for breakfast is encouraged.