Here I am, late to my class. My students are already lined up outside the door, checking their smartphone clocks, huffing, shaking their heads.
And as I’m pedaling frantically to get to work, there are a dozen Italian guys riding their rental bikes, stoned out of their minds, ringing their bells, taking up the entire bike path. Other people start yelling at them. They yell back. Laugh. A frustrated Dutch businessman next to me elbows one of the Italians and he goes down hard. There is the collective breath before the fight.
I spent the first 18 years of my life in Denver and I’ve spent the last eight years here in Amsterdam. And every summer, I escape this “Venice of the North” to the Mile High City, taking my kids to Washington Park or the Natural History Museum, places where I have so many fond memories.
While Amsterdam is a beautiful, modestly safe city, the summer becomes a mecca for “pot tourists.” And since “pot tourists” cannot smoke in their youth hostels, these Greeks, Brits, Irish and French sit along the canal walls, on park benches, in the zoo or, yes, right in front of my house, and inhale, inhale, inhale, then exhale, leaving enormous plumes of deliciously scented smoke for me and my children to walk through.
They have purchased cheap tickets on low-cost airlines with the distinct mission to get as stoned as possible. These are not the Europeans who fly into Vail and wear mink stoles while they ski. These are the Europeans who consider vomiting then passing out on a park bench climactic.
So let’s imagine how Denverites, self-described as laid-back, yet a notoriously prickly group, will deal with this new market …
Kids from small, repressive towns in Alabama or South Carolina or Alaska, piling into a Spirit Airlines jet, flying into Denver with one mission and one mission only. These “pot-tourists” do not care about Denver if they litter or curse or make fools of themselves, because they are on vacation and they have paid for the right to act any way they want. However, your taxes will pay for their broken bottles. Your patience will pay for their overconsumption of marijuana edibles and inevitable hospital visits. And, when you go to the zoo, your tolerance will pay when a dozen of giggly, slightly hostile zombies are standing between you, your children, and the penguins.
Over the past few years, the Amsterdam city council has learned that while these tourists do indeed bring money into the city, they also cost significantly more than, say, the tourists who come for the museums. Not only that, but their constituency — me included — has grown weary of the daily discomfitures. The endless stream of “Pot Package Deals” landing in Schipol airport and the extra police required to monitor them have become more burden than boom, especially during the last few years of European austerity when more pressing government services have been cut.
Forward-thinking mayors have begun to stem the flow of marijuana-based businesses and the Red Light District is slowly being transformed from a filthy, dilapidated six blocks of low-budget weed and sex to a neighborhood of innovative food, fashion and still, yes, some marijuana.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for legal marijuana and I’ve learned that many Dutch, because marijuana is so accessible, smoke moderately, as if drinking a glass of wine. But they’ve also been forced by the EU to spend more money patrolling their borders with Belgium, Germany, and France, where kids are known for driving across, buying as much pot as possible and going back to their respective countries.
So, in the end, I’m proud Colorado has been one of the first states to legalize marijuana, but with those puffs should not only come a bit of healthy paranoia, but prudence as well.
Erik Raschke is a Denver native living in Amsterdam. His novel, “The Book of Samuel” (St. Martins Press, 2009), was set in Denver.