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Sex, drugs and second thoughts

Social IssuesNetherlandsProstitutionAmsterdam (Netherlands)Crime, Law and JusticeHealthMedicine

Amsterdam

The vacation sort of just flew by.

After dropping their packs at a hostel, Ryan Ainsworth and his buddy Richie Bendelow found a shop selling 500 herbal potions that promised to make them high and happy in 500 ways. But the young British tourists went right for the hallucinogenic mushrooms, packaged in clear plastic containers just like the ordinary ones at the greengrocer back home.

The pair took the tips sheet that advised first boiling the mushrooms into a tea "to speed up the effect." It also warned against taking them with hard drugs or alcohol but that "a marijuana joint is no problem and can give you a positive, relaxing feeling."

These guys didn't need advice -- they'd cut loose before in this haven of libertine values and elegant canals. After forking over $24, they made their way to the lush Vondelpark and between them gobbled up the entire box.

The next day, as they were leaving a coffeehouse where they'd bought half a gram of marijuana, they had little to say about the afternoon in the park. "Hey, it's holiday in Holland," said Ainsworth, a 22-year-old kayaking instructor. "Anything goes."

But it may be last call for drugs, sex and live-and-let-live in the Netherlands, one of the most famously broad-minded countries in the world.

Prostitution, abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and magic mushrooms have long been legal here, and soft drugs such as marijuana are technically illegal but are sold with official sanction in small amounts in "coffeehouses." In recent years, however, uneasiness over an influx of Muslim and black immigrants as well as a lifestyle that many believe has gone too far have shifted the Dutch mood away from tolerance and infinite permissiveness.

In 2006, parliament stopped coffeehouses from selling alcohol if they sell marijuana; now, legislators are negotiating to have them located at least 250 yards from schools. This year, a ban on the sale of hallucinogenic mushrooms goes into effect.

"I've been in this business 15 years, and we have never felt so much pressure," said Olaf Van Tulder, manager of the Green House, part of a chain of popular coffeehouses owned by a Dutchman whom High Times magazine has dubbed the "King of Cannabis."

It was only 10 on a recent midweek morning, but already the dealers at the marijuana bar in the back of the Green House were busily weighing marijuana on a small scale and most of the tables were taken by customers rolling joints.

Almost nobody was drinking coffee.

Two young Italians, who already looked a bit wasted, raised two fingers each and pointed to the most expensive hash on the menu, the Dutch Ice-Olator Supreme at $51.80 a gram. Eduardo, the affable dealer, poured out two grams each into a bag, showed the Italians the price on a calculator and waved them off with "Ciao babies!"

Business is good, sure, but the daily struggle with a new drug policing unit has Van Tulder feeling under siege. "Even if there's just a motorbike double-parked out front, they'll shut us down," he says.

Like most natives, Van Tulder, 35, doesn't use marijuana often, but he is concerned that conservative politics will kill Dutch culture: "Listen, these people want to put their religion in society, and I think Amsterdam is dying because of it. It's nice to escape a little from reality."

Joel Voordewind grew up in this city reveling in the punk music scene, and playing drums in a band called No Longer Music (because it was so loud). But he never felt comfortable with Amsterdam's drug use and prostitution and as a kid avoided its red-light district "because you'd get in trouble there."

Now this tall, boyish-looking son of an evangelical pastor is 42 and a member of parliament. His Christian Union Party, which bases much of its policy on biblical doctrine, is trying to remake a government that in his estimation has been morally adrift. Although his party controls only two of 16 ministries, it aligned with liberals to fight for refugees, poor families and the environment while also condemning homosexuality, euthanasia, abortion and youthful experimentation "with everything."

"The people are fed up with the lazy attitude of government. We call it, 'If it's forbidden, we let it go.' Like soft drugs. It's forbidden, but we look the other way," he said, sipping coffee in a bar at the Amsterdam train station. "We have a lot of that kind of policy, and it has given people the feeling that the government was telling them to go their own way."

Although tolerance and diversity have long been a matter of national pride, a series of shocking events has made the Dutch more open to "a firm government with outspoken norms and values," he said.

The killings of maverick populist politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh two years later, both of whom fanned fears of Islamic extremism, have traumatized this predominantly white, Christian country.

The outward-looking Dutch welcomed the newcomers -- and their mosques and Islamic schools -- but have grown less tolerant toward those who don't share their brand of tolerance. And they're also asking themselves why they're inviting tourists to get stoned in their parks and allowing graceful neighborhoods to devolve into lurid Disneylands with sex clubs and massage parlors.

Amsterdam has the most famous and historic red-light district in Western Europe. Although after eight centuries it is unlikely to disappear any time soon, it is in the midst of reinvention.

Last month, Amsterdam's mayor and City Council unveiled a plan to squeeze out brothels and escort services by forcing their owners to apply for permits and by raising the minimum age of prostitutes to 21 from 18. The city is also spending $37 million to buy out a landlord who owns a quarter of the city's buildings where nearly naked women pose behind display windows, red light literally flashing over their heads.

If the City Council gets its way, windows featuring women for sale will give way to displays featuring women's clothes for sale, and historic buildings will be restored to attract upmarket hotels and restaurants, with the remaining brothels clustered on a just few streets.

"The romantic picture of the area is outdated if you see the abuses in the sex industry, and that is why the council has to act," Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen, a member of the Labor Party, said at a news conference announcing the changes. "We don't want to get rid of prostitution, but we do want to cut crime significantly."

Local politicians across the Netherlands have concluded that by legalizing prostitution in 2000, they opened up their cities to international crime organizations trafficking in women, children and hard drugs. The authorities want to wipe out the crime and are also weary of boozy weekend trippers ogling prostitutes and buying illegal drugs on the streets.

In fact, these openly seedy scenes come as a bit of a surprise in this beautiful city full of old churches and bikes -- about 600,000 of them serving 750,000 people. In the central neighborhood, the streets are lined with 17th and 18th century buildings, many with stores quaintly selling clogs and wheels of cheese or old bookshops attracting students.

But turn a corner and there in a window like a mannequin come to life is a young Polish woman spilling out of her bikini. Above her window is a number and the red-neon tube light. As she shifts poses, with her shoulders back and chin out, she tries to remain perched on a high stool.

A few windows down are two older-looking Dominican women dressed in matching white underwear and sharing a fat joint; they look bored and frozen. Nearby, a girl in a black leather bathing suit -- she's Dutch with long blond hair -- is talking on a cellphone while winking and blowing kisses at a clutch of Russian men.

The men circle back a couple of times, but the Dutch girl gets to size them up, and when they don't look promising she slides off her stool and flops on a single bed in her tiny room. She closes her eyes.

Marisha Majoor, who runs the Prostitution Information Center, began walking these streets 20 years ago when almost all the prostitutes were Dutch and the trade was less organized. She eventually quit and started the center, a small storefront next to one of Amsterdam's oldest churches. It operates, more or less, like any other tourist gift shop, except it sells dozens of sex-related items, such as lipsticks in the shape of penises and refrigerator magnets featuring buxom prostitutes.

Majoor, now 37, is convinced that the new concern about the exploitation of women and crime is simply a ploy to see these areas gentrified and, from her perspective, only means that more prostitutes will be forced to work in unsafe conditions.

She also attributes the new anxiety about red-light districts to a fear of migrants.

"For many women in the world, working in the Netherlands is so much better than working in their own country," Majoor said.

While she is talking, a young British tourist stops by to find out how much the women in the window charge ($52 to $74 for 10 to 15 minutes). When the young man asks about safe sex, Majoor's co-worker sells him a "Pleasure Guide" with the pertinent warnings and facts.

Voordewind would like to see his native city's red-light district radically changed. He recently proposed turning it into an artists' colony like Paris' Montmartre. He'd have the city buy the remaining windows and restore the buildings to their original beauty and open them for artists' studios and galleries.

"The district is now a tourist attraction not because of the nice buildings, but because of the windows," he said. "It's very a sad situation. . . . I want it completely changed."

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Social IssuesNetherlandsProstitutionAmsterdam (Netherlands)Crime, Law and JusticeHealthMedicine
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