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The best-known symbols

The Netherlands is the only country where soft drugs are practically legal, writes Abhijit Das.

india Updated: Dec 19, 2006 15:05 IST

Once the best-known symbol of Amsterdam was its network of canals, or the Rijksmuseum. Today it may well be the 'coffee shop'. There are nearly 300 establishments with the sign 'Coffee Shop' in the city, and they draw tourists - specially young tourists - from across Europe in droves. They all know 'coffee shop' is a euphemism, though coffee is available there, should one ask for it. What people go to these so called coffee shops for, however, is cannabis, marijuana, hash.

The Netherlands is the only country where soft drugs are practically legal. Practically, because their purchase - by those more than 18 years old for their personal use alone, and restricted to a maximum of five grams per sale - is allowed by law, as is their sale by the coffee shops. But their purchase by the coffee shops from the manufacturers is illegal. That may sound confusing, but to users it makes little difference. Amsterdam is the soft drugs city.

There has been much debate over this semi-legalising of cannabis. There have been studies which showed it has not made much of a difference to locals. The legalising of the drug has removed the aura of 'forbidden fruit' from around it, rendering it less attractive. The use of cannabis is lower in the Netherlands than in the United Kingdom, for example, where it remains illegal, yet very easily available.

Amsterdam's residents are by and large proud of their city's liberal attitude. But civic authorities are also a little worried about the 'drug tourism' that the legalising of cannabis has led to. They have tried to tackle it, but in the same liberal spirit the city is famous for. Discount vouchers for various museums and other tourist attractions in Amsterdam are left lying around in the coffee shops. By doing so, the authorities hope young foreigners will be drawn to other, more interesting places in the city as well.

World's smartest mayor?

The city rejoiced when Mayor (Burgemeester) Job Cohen recently finished first runner-up in the World Mayor Election contest, though some felt he should have been the winner!

Cohen, who belongs to the Dutch Labour Party, had held several important positions before, both in academics and in government. But he really showed his mettle two years ago when the noted filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was attacked and his throat slit on an Amsterdam street. The killer was a Muslim, Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutchman of Moroccan origin. Van Gogh had indeed made some much-discussed harsh comments about Muslims in the Netherlands, but in this tolerant city, no one had imagined a person could be murdered for voicing his opinion.

What followed in India would have been called 'communal tension'. For Amsterdam it was a new and utterly unnerving experience. Local Dutchmen were furious and ready for revenge, while the Muslim community felt insecure and demonised. Rioting was feared. But Cohen stepped in and kept the situation under control. Though he condemned the murder, he also tirelessly stressed the importance of multiculturalism, and the need to maintain peace. His critics called him soft, but ultimately had to admit that his 'soft' handling of the crisis had been an enormous success.


Anarchic football club

The Ajax (pronounced Ay-ax) football club, one of the institutions of the city, is not as well known in India as it should be.

Though founded in 1900, Ajax really came into its own in the early 1970s, when its concept of 'total football' changed the game forever. It was rebellious, anarchic football, with defenders attacking, attackers defending and the goalkeeper going far beyond his role at the goalpost. Under legendary coaches Rinus Michels and later Stefan Kovacs, with the two inimitable Johans - Cruyff and Neeskens - in the team's forefront, Ajax bounced onto the world stage to win the European Cup for four years in succession.

Ajax has had its share of tribulations since then, going downhill in the 1980s and rising again in the 1990s, only to be wracked by internal feuds and splits. But Amsterdam's residents remain fiercely loyal to it, and are convinced soon one day it will dominate world football again.