HAARLEM, Netherlands -- The water pipe stood two metres tall, encircled by people puffing on its 64 mouthpieces.

Elsewhere in the room, a new machine rolled out 300 marijuana joints in minutes. Free hash was passed around.

It was the start of a three-day Hash and Weed Festival on Friday evening. The aging pioneers of the Dutch marijuana culture, watched by hundreds of young aficionados, gathered in a sports gymnasium to mark the 30th anniversary of the first "coffee shop" that openly sold reefers like cups of coffee.

"This celebration honours the world's most successful marijuana experiment: the Dutch coffee-shop system," said Pete Brady, an organizer and writer for Cannabis Culture Magazine.

The seeds of Dutch drug tolerance were planted in 1969 when two entrepreneurs with a taste for marijuana started selling cannabis plants from a houseboat, calling themselves the Lowlands Weed company.

In 1972, Mellow Yellow - then called a "tea house" - opened on the Amstel River in Amsterdam, the Dutch capital that is now a Mecca for marijuana smokers.

The weekend festival was a tribute to three decades of progressive drug policies in the Netherlands and to the men, like Wernard Bruining, who founded a culture.

Another of the pioneers at Friday's celebration was ( Old Ed ) Holloway, now 86, a cannabis grower who moved to the Netherlands in the 1970s from California. Holloway taught Dutch marijuana growers how to use genetic plant breeding techniques that increased the potency and yield of their crops.

Representing marijuana's big-business establishment was Henk de Vries, who in 1975 opened the first smoke parlour called a "coffee shop" in a former brothel in Amsterdam's notorious red-light district.

De Vries owns the Bulldog chain of coffee shops, now a multinational business of cafes with its own clothing line. Last year, he said, he had about seven million customers.

While Old Ed and de Vries were being honoured, an aging henna-haired Dutchman known as Armand strummed a guitar and sang his songs that had been the background themes in the coffee houses of the '70s.

Along the sides of the sports hall, stands displayed the latest in smoking paraphernalia and the high-technology vapourizers that are replacing hash pipes with the younger crowd. Joints were free for the tasting.

Nol van Schaik, founder of the Global Hemp Museum and owner of the Willie Wortel coffee shop chain, said the marijuana industry has grown so large, "we have become a fully fledged branch of Dutch business."

Holland now has more than 800 coffee shops, found in 105 of the country's 500 cities and towns.

"We have lasted 30 years, despite criticism from around the world, particularly the United States, Sweden and France," said van Schaik, author of The Dutch Experience, a book on the marijuana movement that was released in conjunction with the 30th anniversary.

The Dutch government passed groundbreaking legislation in 1976 that distinguished cannabis-based soft drugs from "hard drugs" such as heroin or cocaine. Cannabis was still officially illegal but the possession of up to 30 grams was no longer to be prosecuted as a criminal offence.

Today, coffee shops sell marijuana and hash in five-gram bags without fear of penalty.

Menus offer a vast selection, ranging from potent high-grade White Widow or Skunk varieties, grown in greenhouses, to milder outdoor strains such as Orange Bud.

Pubdate: Sun, 01 Dec 2002
Source: Edmonton Sun (CN AB)
Copyright: 2002, Canoe Limited Partnership.
Website: Under Construction
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