It’s time we had an adult conversation about Appsterdam.
There are a few topics, certain liberties if you will, that people enjoy in the Netherlands, the mention of which tends to attract criticism. Having taken to heart some feedback, and having thought about it quite a bit, I think further explanation is in order.
Let’s talk about three things that are tolerated in the Netherlands that are often anathema in other places: marijuana, prostitution, and homosexuality.
Let’s take it from the top. Amsterdam and San Francisco are the two world capitals of pot. Each plays host to weed and its culture, surrounded by a tolerant state. I think this is an important success factor for both cities, and for two reasons.
First, a lot of people smoke weed. In general, and as opposed to alcohol, it helps people put aside their differences and get along—or at least chill the heck out. This is especially true in our industry. In northern California, weed is like aspirin, good for any number of ailments, from anxiety to angina. I’ve heard engineers refer to it as brain coolant, a social lubricant preferable to alcohol, and a vital part of the development cycle.
Second, marijuana is relatively harmless. The science is in, and it shows us that THC is a naturally occurring chemical that is self-regulating and nearly impossible to overdose on. This is something we co-evolved with, which grows everywhere, and which wasn’t any kind of big deal until the last century. It’s stupid to waste time on weed when alcohol is both legal and worse—especially in places with real scourges, like meth.
If you’re not down with the chronic, you’ll be pleased to know that weed is a lot less ubiquitous in Amsterdam than in San Francisco. Because it’s freely available, most natives grow out of it, and consider smoking pot something for teenagers to do before graduating to drinking alcohol. Even during the Cannabis Cup, you’d have to be in a coffee shop to notice. You smell weed on the street here once in a while, but far less often than you do in San Francisco.
Then there’s legal prostitution, which is awesome. That last sentence gets me in trouble, because people think I’m saying prostitution is awesome, which is not at all what I am saying. Prostitution is an unfortunate reality in an imperfect world, but having seen it on both sides of the law, I have to tell you that legal prostitution is way, way better.
In the Netherlands, prostitutes pay the same taxes for the same rights and protections as any worker. They have health care, sick pay, and a pension plan. You can move out of prostitution into another industry and have a career, the same as anybody else. Resources saved by not fighting victimless crime are diverted into fighting real crime, like human trafficking.
I feel the same way about soliciting prostitutes as you probably do: you don’t want to pay for sex, because once you’ve paid for sex, you’re a person who has paid for sex. That being said, who am I to feel high and mighty? I’ve had to do work I wasn’t particularly thrilled about, and busting hump throwing bags for a living is no less selling your body. It makes me happy to see a system that works according to logical principles with the expected decrease in human misery, and the red light district here exemplifies that.
What all this means to you is that there is no bad part of town in Amsterdam, no sketchy few blocks where people go to score dope and find hookers. The red light district is, if anything, safer than the rest of Amsterdam, without any of the grossness typically seen in other cities. For adult couples, it can actually be a nice time, and it keeps all that sort of thing in one small place. Your children aren’t going to run into prostitutes anywhere else in the city.
The Netherlands is a testament to what happens when you stop trying to legislate morality. Rather than everything going to hell, the quality of life in general improves, and crime goes down. While the Netherlands is closing prisons for lack of crime, the United States imprisons more people than any other nation. Now tell me who’s wrong about legal prostitution.
On no point does this ring truer than homosexuality. While Americans have their legal right to be together dangled in front of them and batted around like a congressional cat toy, the Netherlands legalized same-sex civil unions a decade ago. Unlike in the United States and much of the world, nobody around here really cares who you love. Your business is your business. As long as you’re not hurting anybody else, you’re free to live your life.
This is the Dutch tolerance that has been the key to Amsterdam’s growing prosperity over the past several centuries. It is what makes this such a nice place, where people from different backgrounds can come together and learn from each other, share food, and laugh at each other’s differences with a spirit of good humor and togetherness.
Tolerance is a two-way street. Being tolerated is easy. Being tolerant can be a challenge. None of us are as color-blind or as free from prejudice and we’d like to believe. Being part of a tolerant society means not only giving up your biases, but also giving up on being offended.
You have to learn to let things go. If somebody does something that rubs you the wrong way, that seems odd, or that annoys you, swallow your feelings, work that grimace into a smile, and laugh.