Back to Amsterdam

January 6, 2024 · High Times

Gezellig is a fantastic Dutch word that encompasses a whole mood and defies translation. I think it means a combination of things: the warm feeling of belonging, being in the right place at the perfect time, surrounded by the most genial company. You hear the word a lot in Amsterdam; the concept of gezellig is at the heart of Dutch culture. Finding the sweet moment, relaxing into it, being as cozy and comfortable as possible… it’s a prescription for any stressed-out modern soul.

Factor in the world’s best hash and cannabis, set against the twinkly Advent-calendar beauty of the “Venice of the North,” and you’re in absolute heaven. Every time I’ve visited Amsterdam, I’ve experienced this untranslatable feeling. It’s potent stuff—a swirl of strong coffee and ice-cold foamy glasses of beer, bicycle bells dinging, and rose-ringed parakeets flitting through the Vondelpark in late-afternoon sunshine, all suffused by the sweet aromas of weed and hash.

When I booked a trip to Amsterdam last summer while dreaming of my previous hazy visits, I considered the perils of pining for bygone days. To quote author Brené Brown, “Nostalgia is… a dangerous form of comparison. Think about how often we compare our lives to a memory that nostalgia has so completely edited that it never really existed.” This would be my first trip to the Netherlands in almost a decade, and I was curious to see how the city’s legendary cannabis culture had evolved—or, perhaps, declined, with Barcelona’s rise to prominence as a new European weed capital.

In 2013, I worked the 26th Annual Amsterdam High Times Cannabis Cup during a long November week that lives in my head as a series of frosty snapshots. I judged the Seed Company Sativa category and was a live wire for five straight days as I sampled 21 strains from legendary outfits like Elemental Seeds, Reserva Privada, and Karma Genetics. That year’s winners were genetic heavyweights Tangie, Sour Power, and a super-tasty Sour Diesel cross called Headbanger.

Dutch authorities shut down the Cannabis Cup Expo at the last minute that year, and the High Times staff had to scramble to keep vendors and attendees happy. I remember a lot of long, chilly walks along glittering canals, shuttling back and forth to shows at the Melkweg from coffeeshops that had entered the competition. My judges’ kit powered me through it all like a little weed jetpack, especially on the night my phone died, and I got hopelessly lost. Fortunately, I somehow found my way to the judges’ dinner, where I was enveloped in a cloud of good cheer and great smoke. Gezellig!

This time around, my travel companion and I had no plans beyond eating, smoking, and visiting museums for three days to unwind after a few weeks in the U.K. Our train from London pulled into Amsterdam Central Station at 4:20 p.m. We were in the flow. We dropped our bags at our hotel and headed right for the iconic coffeeshop Green House in the area known as De Wallen, or the red light district.

We pulled up as the sky was darkening into evening shades of purple. The neon sign in the window cast an amber glow over the scene humming in the coffeeshop. It was cinematic and gorgeous, and it smelled great. A laughing girl bumped into me on her way out as we ducked inside. I could feel the days I’d spent in London melting off me, almost hissing as they swirled away. We were in the right place at the right moment. What a relief. My memories of Amsterdam weren’t nostalgic; this was now.

Inside the glow of Green House, we were greeted by Joa Helms, the CEO of the Green House Seed Company. He gestured to the menu on the wall illuminated behind the busy budtenders and asked what we wanted to sample. “Super Lemon Haze, of course,” Helms said with a grin, “and how about some Ztrawberry?” We gratefully—almost wordlessly, I think—sank into a booth next to the window with the two packets of flower he handed us, along with rolling papers and a grinder. “It’s made from hemp,” Helms said of the grinder, as he departed into the night with a friendly wave, leaving us with our treasures.

Green House Seed Company has won countless awards for legendary strains like White Widow and Super Silver Haze, as well as for Super Silver’s progeny, Super Lemon Haze, which won back-to-back Cannabis Cups in 2008 and 2009. As my friend and I stuck our noses into the bags of flower to determine which way our evening would bend, one sniff of Super Lemon Haze was all we needed to know how it was going to go. Roll up, smoke, relax, repeat.

We floated out of Green House into the cool September night after a while, turning left, right, and left again on our evening adventure. We babbled through our Haze-y buzz as we passed by sex workers posing in windows, their neon lingerie popping under black lights with drapes barely concealing rudimentary beds just behind them. Moving through a crush of tourists with unclothed bodies on display for the gawking masses was elemental and deeply weird, but it also felt exactly right because I knew this would likely be the last time we’d see De Wallen like this.

In a move billed as an antidote to the effects of hedonistic tourism, the Dutch government has hatched a plan to relocate the red light district to the outskirts of town. The proposal would shut down sex workers’ windows in an attempt to reset the city as a family-friendly destination. Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema is leading the charge to redefine the city’s reputation—and she also wants to ban non-residents in coffeeshops by enforcing a national residents-only rule. Halsema says that banning tourists from coffeeshops is unavoidable in order to tackle tourist nuisances that arise from the “soft drug” sector—i.e. cannabis.

My friend and I chatted about the complicated nature of sex work and drug culture as we strolled along the canals. Prostitution in Amsterdam has been legal and regulated since 2000. Cannabis, however, has never been legal in the Netherlands—the government’s policies tolerate the possession and sale of small quantities of weed and psilocybin, and it’s decriminalized for personal use, but it’s not legal. And for decades, that was just fine, until conservatives like Halsema decided it wasn’t. The tide has turned for the counterculture in Amsterdam as politicians debate about what’s best for the city. It’s certainly the end of an era.

As we finally made our way back to our hotel, my buzz was wearing thin, but my bud stopped to roll up some Ztrawberry, popping open our second fragrant pouch. We perched next to each other on the edge of a canal barge, watched by a well-fed cat who sat cleaning its puffy tail with an eye on us. I was pretty faded after our glowy Super Lemon Haze’d evening, and I was ready to call it quits. But the click of my friend’s lighter and the pass of a joint turned it all around. 

Ztrawberry is a Runtz x A.M.S. cross—it’s got a heavy kick from its Gelato parent sweetness, which fades to a perfect, heady buzz. Holy smokes, I thought, sitting on the edge of the canal barge as I gazed back at the Dutch cat. OK, you are NOT TIRED. You feel great. You feel clear and calm, and in the perfect state of being… oh, wait, this is… yes, it’s gezellig. (Full Story)

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