Lighting up in Amsterdam

It's not the Anne Frank house they are here to see.

Wearing matching t-shirts emblazoned with a photo of their friend with a big slice of ham on his face and "Hamface's stag do," written on the back, these young men are in town for a good time.

What is a good time?

"Smokin'. You know. Maybe. Some 'shrooms. But mainly just smokin' and chillin," says a 30-something named Trevor-something from somewhere in Ireland as he mock dry humps his friend, the proud groom to be. "They are going to close this all down soon, you know," he notes. "Poof."

Interviewing people late Saturday night in the red light district who have been stoned for days yields little in the way of coherent answers.

"I see balloons. Hee hee," he adds.

Famously liberal Holland decriminalized soft drugs in the seventies, setting up so-called coffeeshops where anyone over 18 could walk in, look through a menu, order their favorite brand of marijuana and light up.

Today, there around 750 coffee shops in the country, of which 223 are in Amsterdam -- mostly in the city's red light district, where prostitution is also legal.

The coffeeshops are a way of life here, with many locals stopping in for a puff to go with their cappuccino and morning papers, or passing by to relax and chat on their way home from work.

They have also become a massive tourism attraction, with everyone from serious pot smokers to the "Hamface" crowd determined to "have fun" to the merely curious -- flooding in from around the world to experiment, and helping to make Amsterdam one of the top tourist destinations in Europe, with over 4.6 million visitors annually.

For years, there has been debate in government about reducing drug tourism and its accompanying "nuisance factor," as part of efforts to fight crime and counter drug trafficking across the borders with Germany and Belgium. Some restrictions have already been enforced in several of the border cities, with more rigid coffeeshop zoning policies and caps on foreign purchases.

But now, it seems the push for change is becoming more strenuous.

Late last month, the right wing Dutch cabinet announced that it intended to turn the coffeeshops in Holland into "private clubs for the local market" -- meaning that would-be Dutch customers will have to sign up for a one-year membership, or 'dope pass', to the coffee shops (about 1500 members be allowed for each coffeeshop) -- and foreigners will be barred from them altogether.

In addition, the new measures call for the number and visibility of coffeeshops to be reduced. The new laws propose that a distance of at least 350 meters be established between secondary schools and coffeeshops, meaning that, in Amsterdam, for example, more than half (116) of the 223 coffeeshops would have to close. If primary schools are also subjected to distance criteria, only 36 coffeeshops would remain in Amsterdam.

All this, according to a justice department spokesman, will be implemented by the end of the year, initially in the south of country, and then everywhere.

Or will it? In fact, what will happen next is unclear, as it's not only the Eurorail-ing pot heads who have registered dismay, but also opposition politicians, the city of Amsterdam and many powerful businesses who stand to lose enormous revenue who are fighting back against what they have dubbed "tourism suicide."

"Coffee shops are not actively promoted by our organization and are not used in order to attract tourists," says Machteld Ligtvoet, a spokeswoman for the Amsterdam Tourism & Convention Board, which has come out against the new measures. "However, the mere idea that one can buy and use soft drugs here is an attractive aspect of Amsterdam and its famous spirit of freedom."

Of course, not everyone is interested in drugs, she allows, and if the coffeeshop rules are changed, there will still be plenty of tourists coming to town to visit the Van Gogh museum, rent a rickety bike to ride out into the country, or relax along the pretty canals. But others might not be as keen.

Marcus, for example, a 29 year old mechanic from Swindon, England who sports a tattoo reading "Allah" in Arabic on his neck ("just because it's cool," he explains) is one of those who is clear about what attracts him to the city.

He comes here for a long weekend every year, together with some dozen friends, for what has become a pilgrimage to the Bulldog coffeeshop and hostel, one of the city's first and most touristy establishments, stationed in an old police headquarters.

In seven years of coming here, he admits, he has not ventured out of the area between the train station, the Bulldog and the other side of the red light district a few blocks away.

"We are a big group," he explains. "We don't want to get lost."

Booking cheap budget airlines tickets long in advance, and sleeping eight to a room, Marcus and his friends are not high end tourists.

But there are the munchies-fueled dashes to the chip shops and 24 Chinese noodle places; There is, perhaps, a visit to a prostitute and maybe a pop into the sex museum next door, as well as presents for the girlfriends back home -- a wood tulip, maybe, or a windmill salt shaker. There is that got-to-have bulldog t-shirt, and sure, throw in that bulldog ashtray too and that five euro Heineken fridge magnet.

There is all that marijuana paraphernalia, some marijuana seeds to plant back home -- and of course the drugs themselves, which cost at least 11 Euros a gram for marijuana. Harder drugs, although mostly illegal, are also easy to find and far more expensive.

"Drugs tourism generates about 10 billion Euros. And that's leaving aside the trade in soft drugs itself, which has an annual turnover of between 1.5 and 2 billion Euros," says Jan Brouwer, director of the Centre for Public Order and Security at the University of Groningen. "Those are significant sums, but apparently they are the wrong sort of tourist."

Meanwhile, beyond the arguments about lost revenue, there is another, perhaps larger debate being prompted by the proposed new measures to control drug use by imposing restrictions. And that is -- will they even work?

"If there is a will there is always a way," giggles Paul, an architecture student from Lithuania, who is sitting up at a high bar table, inhaling marijuana from a vaporizer and watching cartoons at Barneys, a popular coffee shop that wins yearly awards from High Times magazine for the quality of it's marijuana.

"I would just get my friend here to go in and buy for me, even if I have to pay a little more," he says, nodding to a Dutchman sitting near by. "Not possible....I don't really stop this scene," he says, his voice trailing off as smiles at the cartoon images of skeletons dancing on the small screen.

At least now, adds Jackie, a self employed "Ganja guide," who takes tourists on long wandering coffee shop crawls for 50 Euros per person, customers are provided with accurate information about the quality of the drugs being sold and the source, as well as safety guidelines. Furthermore, coffeeshops are not allowed to serve alcohol, which, she says, is the real "bad" drug, or even to smoke tobacco indoors, which, she points out, "is not healthy."

"Telling us what to do is not going to work," she says, meeting her latest clients, two professional American couples in their late 30s, at Katsu, a low key local coffeeshop outside of the city center. "When does that ever work? This city is known for being liberal and open, and now here come these ayatollahs with all their lecturing about morality. But I tell you, we will not give in," she says.

These sorts of arguments are getting back-up from a range of surprising directions.

Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan, for one, has argued that the new laws will just drive the market underground and create a whole slew of new problems, from unsafe drugs to gang related violence.

"The City of Amsterdam fears that closing the vast majority of coffeeshops in the city would be counterproductive. Initial analysis shows that (this) would result in increased nuisance around the remaining coffeeshops, greater health risks and a thriving street trade," his office said in a statement. "Making soft drugs available through coffeeshops curtails the dealing of drugs on the street."

A new report by a prominent group of politicians and former world leaders also echoes this logic, suggesting that main stream anti-drug policy worldwide have failed -- managing instead only to fuel organized crime, cost taxpayers millions of dollars and cause thousands of deaths.

Drugs need to be decriminalized, concludes the Global Commission on Drug Policy report, which was signed off on by the likes of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and the former leaders of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil -- and addicts need to be treated as patients, not villains.

Instead of punishing users who, the report says, "do no harm to others," -- the commission argues that governments should experiment with legal models that would undermine organized crime syndicates and offer health and treatment services for drug-users: Exactly what Holland, with its impressive facilities for addiction and extensive demand reduction programs, is already doing today.

"Drug use in Amsterdam has remained more or less the same for a decade, that is a fact," says Jackie. "Why change something that works? What's the problem here? A little rowdiness? The neighbor countries are annoyed? Whatever. And whoever thinks they are going to solve any problems here by trying to stop people smoking is high," she concludes, flashes a smile, and lights up.