A sign listing new restrictions on cannabis is posted at the door to the Melkweg in Amsterdam on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. (Jake Browne, The Cannabist)

Cannabis Cup: 7 surprising differences between Amsterdam and Denver

In a world seemingly gone to pot, you’d hardly expect Amsterdam to make a stink over the skunkiest of herbs. Yet the 27th annual High Times Cannabis Cup made the biggest headlines for what didn’t happen, with the main expo canceled less than 24 hours before doors were scheduled to open because the mayor’s office had threatened to arrest attendees, according to organizers.

The irony of coming from Colorado to be a judge of coffee shop cannabis at an unexpectedly transformed Amsterdam Cannabis Cup wasn’t lost on me, or most people I talked to over the five-day trip. Why travel 5,000 miles to smoke marijuana when it’s legal right down the street? The two experiences had as much in common as pizza in Naples and a Domino’s.

1. No expo? So what.

Cannabis Cup: 7 surprising differences between Amsterdam and Denver
The Melkweg hosted the Amsterdam Cannabis Cup. (Jake Browne, The Cannabist)

The trade show portion of any High Times Cannabis Cup is usually the last place you’ll find me. It’s like most craft fairs, but instead of vendors selling you turquoise jewelry and knock-off sunglasses, it’s glass pipes and the latest lighting systems. So when the word came out that this portion of the Cup would be canceled, there wasn’t exactly rioting in the streets. Sure, a few people were annoyed about the value of their pass, but most veterans of the Amsterdam Cup told me it’s always been more about the coffee shops. With over 20 strains to smoke over four days, I didn’t need much from the shops, anyway.

2. Stoner food. Stoner food everywhere.

If it wasn’t for walking enough to short out a generic FitBit, I probably would have gained a good 10 pounds on the trip. Fries are everywhere, usually served with a generous side of mayonnaise. I also sampled a variety of waffles, my favorite being topped with Nutella while hot and then served with a tiny fork I’m positive I used incorrectly. Street pizza. Steakhouses, particularly Argentine, were on every block. Everyone offered all-you-can-eat spare ribs. The deconstructed gyro plates (Döner) were my favorite budget item, but I’m also sure I could have eaten anything and started handing out Michelin stars like Oprah gives out cars. Compared to the handful of overwhelmed food trucks at the Denver Cup, it was paradise.

3. Most locals don’t care about pot.

I think I could have elicited more powerful reactions about tulips in my time abroad. Cannabis truly feels normalized in Amsterdam, only to the point that no one particularly cares. High tourists are merely the butt of jokes, with one hilariously stoned kid greeted with a comically loud “Good morning!” at a frites chain called The Chipsy King — it was 8 p.m. The coffee shop crowds are predominantly composed of anyone but the Dutch, whose ambivalence was most evident as I tried to find someone to provide a quote about the Cup. None of them even knew it was happening.

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4. No pictures, please.

While some dispensaries are still hardcore about the “no photos” thing here in Colorado, most realize that tourists want to do touristy things like taking selfies with jars of weed. Sadly, it’s integral to their experience. In Amsterdam, I was asked to leave two separate shops for having my camera out. I didn’t get it until I was with a Canadian film crew that was turned down by every major player, finally managing to clear a corner of a shop with no transactions, employees or paraphernalia in frame. Even staff members there don’t want to be associated with it.

5. But coffee shops do work.

With Colorado tourists increasingly frustrated with the lack of options where they could actually consume all of the legal pot they purchase, and with public-consumption tickets dramatically increasing in Denver and Boulder, at least there was a place to puff. In central Amsterdam, it never felt like you were more than a couple of blocks from somewhere you could buy and smoke marijuana, even if you chose to smoke discreetly on the street. While motifs ranged from a weird fishbowl-themed shop that reminded me of something out of “The Simpsons” to more nightclub-esque digs, most were comfortable places to get a cup of ridiculously strong coffee and some notably less-potent weed.

6. Colorado’s still the best.

Cannabis Cup draws thousands to Denver 4/20 weed fair
A bowl is loaded for an attendee to sample at The Green Solution booth at the Denver Cannabis Cup on April 20, 2014. (Seth McConnell, The Denver Post)

Taking a whiff of the coffee shop staple Northern Lights, it took me a minute to place the smell before it dawned on me: schwag. It had been a while. Since the cultivation scene there mainly consists of literal underground growers in basements, curing is a different beast. Instead of well-developed trichomes and layered terpenes, I found bud mold and powdery mildew more times than I’d like. When it comes to consistent strength and quality, Colorado is still the cannabis capital of the world in my book. Even my $13 eighth would have been better than some of the herb I smoked. No wonder they mix it with tobacco.

7. Same for the Denver Cup — it truly is amazing.

I walked away with a new appreciation for what High Times pulled off over 4/20 weekend this year. Mainly, the pounds and pounds of free ganja and hash that vendors were doling out to anyone with lungs and half-open eyes. It was like a soup kitchen for stoners. The T-shirt cannons and Craigslist models can feel tacky at times, but overall it’s a huge group of like-minded individuals coming together and puffing down in a way that dwarfs any coffee shop experience you’ll have by a factor of a few thousand people. It’s hard to imagine that happening in Amsterdam anytime soon.

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