Amsterdam's Cannabis Cup: Blowing Dutch

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Vancouverites were highly visible at Amsterdam's Cannabis Cup, and
sometimes visibly high. But, writes Brian Preston, important stuff
happened too.

On the eve of the 13th Annual High Times Cannabis Cup, which wrapped two
weeks ago in Amsterdam, I shared a table with an English couple named
Robbie and Anne Marie, at a coffee shop called Rookies. They were
"skinning up," as the English like to say - rolling tobacco and marijuana
(in this case a strain called Northern Lights) into big, three-paper
joints. Smoking cannabis is illegal in Britain, of course, but the seeds
are legal, and can be bought in any fish-bait shop. Robbie explained why:
Not long after the Second World War some Frenchmen came over to compete in
a famous British fishing derby. The French brought hemp seeds, which they
boiled until soft, then attached to hooks. British fish went crazy for
cannabis, and the Frenchmen won the derby. "So hemp seeds were legalized
in Britain," said Robbie.

"To beat the French," added Anne Marie.

The two Londoners had crossed the channel for the Cannabis Cup, which bills
itself as "the world's leading convention for marijuana lovers and
connoisseurs." It's a huge party in which 2,000 tourists, most of them
American readers of High Times magazine, race around Amsterdam, visiting 19
competing coffee shops, getting their "official judge's passports" (cost
$200 U.S.) stamped. As judges they appraise the ambience of each shop,
while smoking and rating the unique strains of cannabis on offer.

Robbie and Anne Marie were back for the second straight year. "I'd never
thought fondly of the Yanks before," said Robbie. "But, last year I found
out there are no typical Americans. We met young black kids from Los
Angeles, 60-year-old Mohawk Indians from the Bronx, college professors from
Kansas, retired couples from Florida. It made me realize America is just
an amazing multiplicity of sub-groups. Small tribes."

"And all the accents are so-o-o-o different," said Anne Marie.

By the next afternoon I understood what they meant, Cannabis Cup central
was the Pax Party House, a three-storey convention space right next to a
police station on Ferdinand Bolstraat. The Pax was packed with every kind
of American male;
there were young homeys moving in small posses, decked out head to toe in
Oakland Raider silver and black; there were balding tie-dyed hippies, and
African-American yuppies with salon-styled dreads; and there were pleanty
of small-town guys with curved-billed ballcaps, looking like they just got
off work at the feedmill. I asked one from Tennessee how the police treat
pot smokers in his home state. "If you don't have a lot, they sprinkle it
on the ground," he said. "But if you have a lot, they crucify you to the
cross."

It's hard to imagine the Dutch wanting to crucify anyone. Amsterdam has
become the centre of world cannabis culture because the Dutch practice an
Old World pragmatism that often gets labelled "tolerance," and because the
American War on Drugs has driven American cannabis experts into exile
there. "The Dutch were the first country to abolish slavery," one such
ex-pat philosophized in a coffee shop. "But they were also the first to
use slavery, before that. They invented the slave plantation, in Sumatra.
So they're always ahead of the curve. They're always inventing some new
thing 50 years ahead of everyone else. Fifty years from now more of the
world will be like Holland, and Holland will be on to something completely
new." In support of his theory, the Dutch parliament was busy that week
preparing to make their country the world's first to give legal sanction to
euthanasia.

Canada and B.C. if not quite in Holland's league, are certainly players in
the world of marijuana. This year a Canadian seed company, Legends,
managed a third place finish with a sativa strain it had grown outdoors in
Switzerland. Marc Emery, Vancouver's high-profile pot impresario, did not
attend, avoiding the wrath of several Dutch seed company owners, who are
angry with him for retailing their products without their permission on the
Internet. Reporters from Emery's Cannabis Culture magazine were refused
press credentials because of a running feud with High Times. But there
were plenty of Vancouver pot snobs on hand, grudgingly admitting that the
Dutch are growing better, cleaner bud. In years past, the locals had
grumbled about the Europeans using too many chemical fertilizers, which
apart from possible health concerns, made a joint burn poorly. I met
Canadians from four other provinces as well. One foursome of Calgary
hosers sported specially made Olympic-style red and white athletic jackets
with "Canadian Smoking Team" emblazoned across their backs. Another couple
had arrived straight from a similar competition in Montreal. "There were
800 people in a rented hall," one said. "They gave you 11 varieties at the
door. The smoke was so thick you couldn't even see the reggae band on the
stage."

Last year's Cannabis Cup was marred by charges of fixes and ballot
stuffing. "Fraud at the Cannabis Cup" was played up with great amusement
in the Dutch media. What had begun a dozen years earlier as a harvest
festival with hippie ideals had mutated into cutthroat capitalist
competition between coffee shops. This year the organizers went out of
their way to keep it clean. The theme was "Honour the Goddess" and so
cannabis goddesses - female marijuana activists, mostly -- were flown in to
be feted, to give seminars and to smoke lots of pot as esteemed judges.

Vancouver's Watermelon, named for the fruit she sells (along with her
special recipe "krazy kannabis kookies") in the nude on Wreck Beach, had
been hired as official SpokesGoddess. Jen Cressey, as she's otherwise
known, is also a stand-up comic with a Norm McDonald deadpan style, and it
was her duty to MC the evening entertainments at the famous Melkweg,
introducing such acts as Patti Smith and Starship, the remnants (no Grace
Slick) of Jefferson Airplane. She took her job seriously, and wore classy
gowns all week in a deliberate decision to dress and behave like the kind
of spokesmodel who would do any straight cause proud. "I've been to pot
legalization rallies in Vancouver where everyone is dressed like a
delinquent," said the 27-year-old. "Pot activists are never going to get
taken seriously until we show that we represent the hundreds of thousands
of average users, who are mostly white and blue-collar regular folks."

Also on hand were Hilary Black and Jill Fanthorpe of Vancouver's Compassion
Club. Hilary took part in a seminar on medical marijuana and gave a
history of the club that was exceptionally lucid, considering that as a
"celebrity Godess judge" in the hashish category, she was required to smoke
a mountain - 17 different varieties - of high-quality hash.

At her seminar Black began by describing how five years ago she worked for
Emery's Hemp B.C. store, and found herself constantly fielding calls from
people wanting to know about marijuana's purported value in alleviating
chronic pain. So she educated herself. In one case she went to the house
of an elderly woman with painful arthritis. After they smoked a joint
together the woman was able to go the kitchen make herself a cup of the tea
and carry it back to the living room, which doesn't sound like a huge
accomplishment, except it was the first time in two years the woman had
been able to pull it off. "She thought I was some angel sent to her by
God," Black told a packed conference room. "And as an 18-year-old girl, I
knew I had found a calling."

Now the Compassion Club has 1,200 patients, offers all kinds of free
alternative therapies like Reiki and acupuncture, and is a registered
charity. The audience, mostly Americanns living under Zero Tolerance,
applauded when Black told them how a huge Vancouver police officer, after
touring the club, had put a paternal hand on her shoulder and said, "You
girls are doing good Christian work here."

Standing in the doorway of the police station beside the Pax, Fanthorpe,
the club's chief cannabis buyer, was explaining to a journalist her
methodology as a Cannabis Cup hashish judge when two cops came racing out
of the station, threaded their way through the multitude of potheads,
hopped into a car, and sped away. It reminded me of the scene a few years
ago when the Vancouver police raided Hemp B.C., and the crowd outside
chanted, "Don't waste our time, go fight real crime!" Amsterdam cops seem
to get it right at least for the consumer. But the coffee shops still
operate in a legal limbo that the Dutch call "front door legal, back door
illegal," meaning they can sell pot in tiny amounts at the front counter,
but buying it in bulk and bringing it in the back still gets you busted.
It's a situation not so different from that faced by the Compassion Club in
Vancouver . The police ignore the dispensing of pot to the sick, but still
charge anyone they catch growing it.

Another honoured Goddess was California-based Mikki Norris, co-author of
the book "Shattered Lives; Portraits from America's Drug War", which
highlights the absurd prison sentences American courts are handing down to
drug offenders. Norris gave a slide show of Drug War victims like Melinda
George, serving 99 years in Texas for the sale of one tenth of a gram of
cocaine. An audience member yelled out, "George W. Bush never did a line
in his life smaller than that!"

Norris asked people to check out her Web site, potpride.com "because we
want to say, "We're here, we're high, get used to it!" She suggested pot
users need to follow the Gay Pride model. "Gays by coming out of the closet
made major gains in their rights, and we need to do that. Because once
they see who the pot smokers really are, that we're middle-class
responsible taxpayers mostly, I don't think they're going to want to
persecute us."

I was reminded of Vancouver's trepidation at the thought of a "sodomite
invasion before the Gay Games here a decade ago, and how the city's
attitude toward gay tourism was tansformed by that event. Amsterdam
accepts the Cannabis Cup participants for the same reasons Vancouver and
other cities now court gays - they are largely well-behaved, affluent
Americans discreetly and responsibly celebrating a freedom they aren't
allowed in many parts of the so-called Land of the Free.

But coming out of the closet is still a huge risk for an American pot
smoker. There were some fairly obvious undercover agents mixing in the
crowd at the Cup, like the guy with the amateur video camera pretending to
tape the seminars but spending most of his time zooming in one by one on
the faces of audience members. All the brave rhetoric about coming out
didn't seem to be swaying him. He was just following orders. What Norris
called the "prison-industrial complex" in America has a huge stake in
keeping prison cells for two million occupied, and docile pot smokers do
make ideal prisoners.

The only Goddess who professed no interest in using cannabis herself was
Nancy Lord Johnson, a Nevada lawyer and MD who in 1992 ran for U.S.
vice-president on the Libertarian ticket. Lord Johnson delivered a
chilling speech that might have been called The Drug War and the Erosion of
American Liberty. "Kicking in your door and shooting your dog, locking
your kids in another room, this is done in the name of getting the big bad
drug dealer, and now they're starting to do it to everybody," she said.
She described the sad case of an alternative therapist who had been
administering liquid deprenyl citrate. "Anyone know what liquid drprenyl
is? It's an anti-Parkinson's drug. His particlular version of it was not
the FDA-approved version but it was better. He had a patient getting sick
on the approved drug, the only thing that made her able to live her life
and not be shaking was the liquid deprenyl citrate he made available to
her." Charged and convicted of supplying the unapproved drug, the
therapist got 13 years.

The highlight of the Cup was to be the induction of Ina May Gaskin into
something called the Counter-Cultural Hall of Fame. Gaskin is the founding
mother of the modern American midwifery movement, and author of the bible
of alternative childbirthing, Spiritual Midwifery. At a mid-week press
conference, she was introduced by her husband, Stephen, who was fresh from
a year spent trying to push marijuana rights within Ralph Nader's Green
Party. "Ralph thinks marijuana is like a faulty windshield wiper," he
said. "A consumer product that could hurt you." But he said Nader had
eventually come to respect his view that what's happening to marijuana
users in the United States is "a massive civil-rights violation, on the
level of a class war. Because we're a random tribe, scattered and
isolated, they exploit that."

At a press conference, Ina May Gaskin related how, as a curious bookworm in
the 1950s, she had dug around libraries in Iowa trying to find out more
about "this mysterious plant" that her jazz-musician heroes like Louis
Armstrong and John Coltrane smoked. Beyond that she had little to say
about cannabis except that it had never done her any harm; instead she
talked about childbirth as an event most women still need to reclaim. "It
doesn't make sense to do surgery to cut a baby out of a woman when there is
a way the baby is meant to come out," she said. Why do doctors push for
caesareans? "It seems the problem is really fear of women's sexuality, and
women's creative power, and it's time to get over it," she informed a rapt
audience that included punk diva Patti Smith, who later spoke glowingly of
the role Gaskin's book had played in the birth of her own children.

Gaskin approaches birth as a sensual experience, using such touch
techniques as stimulation of the nipples and kissing to harness the
passions of arousal to bring forth life. "A woman can orgasm during
childbirth, and most doctors don't want you to know it," she said, at which
point a woman in the audience, unable to contain herself, interrupted to
say that in 1979 while giving birth to her second child. "I told my
doctor, I think I'm having an orgasm, and he told me I was crazy."

That was the press conference. On the final night of the Cup, at the big
party at the Melkweg, it was a harder sell getting the rowdy, mostly male,
party crowd to pay attention to a lengthy introduction of Gaskin, featuring
slides of breach births and such food for thought as "lying on her back is
the worst possible position for a woman giving birth." The crowd was more
interested in who was going to win the People's Cup (Barney's Breakfast
Bar), or Best Coffeeshop (De Rokerij). Hilary Black announced the winner
for best hashish (the Water Hash from Katsu), telling the crowd, "I look
forward to the day when high quality hashish is available all over the
world."

Actually, for do-it-yourselfers it already is: Earlier in the evening,
Goddess Mila Jansen, a Dutch pot entrepreneur who invented the Ice-olater,
a simple system to make hashish from cannabis leaves and flowers, announced
her product is now used in 37 countries. While America keeps locking
people away, the rest of the world is coming out to play.

Victoria-based writer Brian Preston is researching a book on marijuana
culture around the world.


Pubdate: December 9, 2000
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Page E5
Copyright: The Vancouver Sun 2000
Contact: sunletters@pacpress.southam.ca
Address: 200 Granville Street, Ste.#1, Vancouver BC V6C 3N3
Fax: (604) 605-2323
Website: Vancouver Sun
Author: Brian Preston