“History, Hookers, and Hashish”

Just Another Friday Evening

Amsterdam has a lot of tours one can take in order to learn more about the city. We had yet to go on one until September 25. Of all the tours we could have selected, we picked the red light district tour. Our friend who lives in the Hague told us she was coming up Friday night for the tour. So, of course we wanted to hang out with our friend.

The Amsterdam Red Light District Tour

The website proudly posted that Fox News named this specific tour “one of the 8 wackiest and weirdest tours around the world.” As if that wasn’t sufficiently awkward, the tour is also dubbed “history, hookers, and hashish.” Word. On their website, the tour promises to amuse and entertain by showing tourists the prostitutes that stand in the windows lit up by the infamous red lights (blue lights come with something extra, literally), the world’s first condom store, hidden street art, famous “coffee” shops, a peep show, and an erotic theater.

We arrive at a popular monument in Dam Square to meet our tour guide. We’ll call him Jansen, but that’s not his real name. Jansen looks like a 20 something year old who gives tours part-time to help pay for school or something. He’s wearing a hoodie, jeans, and a baseball cap. Later he tells us he’s actually 40. 

Anyway, Jansen starts the tour with a brief historical overview of prostitution and drug culture in Amsterdam. According to him, Amsterdam as we know it originated from a dam on the Amstel river. It was first a small fishing village. In the late 12th century it became one of the most important ports in the world. During the Dutch Golden Age, things became even more interesting. Including prostitution and drugs. These two elements became so prevalent in Dutch society that certain aspects of prostitution and drug use were legalized and regulated. Jansen explains how some members of Dutch royalty were so in love with the coco that they reserved entire rooms in the palace just to frolic in it and use to their heart’s content. (We have not been able to verify this fact on the internet, but it’s provocative and gets the people going.)

The Church of Saint Nicholas in the heart of downtown Amsterdam, right across the street from Central Station.
The Church of Saint Nicholas in the heart of downtown Amsterdam, right across the street from Central Station.

Customized Condoms, and Preschools, and Prostitution 

The first stop on the tour is Condomerie, the oldest specialty condom shop in the world. This store existed when people weren’t even using condoms. Now, you can go there and get customized condoms made to precisely fit your measurements. We then went to the actual Red Light District, called De Wallenand its surrounding areas. Jansen explained how there was a church and a preschool in the center of the red light district. He used this part of the tour to illustrate that prostitution was able to exist alongside other socially acceptable aspects of society. According to Jansen, who used the entire tour to expound on his personal public policy prescriptions, if prostitution and drug use are going to happen anyway, one might as well find a way to do them safely while also collecting revenue for the state. For him, regulation and decriminalization is the answer. He cited other countries in the world where the desire to engage in these vices is vibrant, but carry severe punishments and societal shame, ultimately discouraging people to engage freely in these activities. To him, this is more detrimental to a society. We note that the internet ranks Amsterdam one of the best cities to live in and the Netherlands as the seventh happiest country in the world.

Coffee Shops Not Just for Drinking Coffee

We also went to the first “coffee” shop ever. It’s called the Bulldog 90. The coffee shops do sell coffee, but that is not the main attraction. If you simply want to enjoy a cappuccino or latte, you are better off at a cafe. The coffee shops are known for their assortment of cannabis options. They sell products like marijuana, edibles, hash, and even energy drinks. Apparently coffee shops are only allowed to possess a certain amount of the jolly green giant at one time. If an inspection or raid reveals that they have more than the allowed amount, the shop could get shut down. People are only allowed to carry up to 5 grams in the city, so each transaction is limited to 5 grams per person. This is also the point in the tour when Jansen proudly asserts that he has been smoking marijuana for 27 years (he told us he was 40; do the math real quick) and quickly adds that his worst drug experiences all involved alcohol. He did not mention that in addition to involving alcohol, he might have been high when he started drinking. 

The Infamous Bulldog
The Infamous Bulldog

I’ll Take The “Red Light Special,” Please

The tour then walks you through a full functioning brothel. As soon as you enter, you feel like Liam Neeson in Taken. It is a dimly lit maze of a hallway and on the left and right are rooms with curtains hanging from rods as doors. Prostitutes are either putting in work or chilling outside their room waiting for another one *DJ Khaled Voice*. You would think the vibe would be similar to a strip club. An environment where the women are selling you the dream of the best experience of your life, but nah. It’s not like TLC’s “Red Light Special” music video with Chili rubbing on herself, dancing under a light. Prostitutes get so much business they do not have to work for your attention. That goes for the brothels and the chicks in the windows. When it comes to the infamous prostitutes with the red light in the window, you often see them talking to each other or sitting down with their phones playing Candy Crush. Jansen told us, from his personal research, they only perform one position and will do their best to get you out as quick as possible. The government also taxes prostitutes at a rate of 60%, but in return they receive health care and pensions. The Netherlands is known for providing extensive social welfare to their citizens. So, in theory, should a Dutch citizen experience hard times, part of the welfare he or she will receive will come from a tax-paying, hard-working prostitute. 

Relevant Policy Questions Arise

Jansen’s policy views and anecdotes might have been the most interesting part of the tour. It seems as if the tolerant, non-judgemental attitude that some say characterizes Dutch society came out of the evolution of permissive drug and prostitution policy. Some research on the internet said that the Dutch aren’t even heavy drug users and that drug use was actually introduced by foreigners coming to the Netherlands’ ports. And while the locals do not want their cultural capital to be a haven for foreign drug users, they value the freedom to make your own choices on this matter more. 

While some Dutch are not proud of the open yet regulated prostitution and drug culture, they should be. We find it impressive, mainly because we come from a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Half the prisoners are drug offenders and over half of them had little to no criminal record before they were convicted of the drug crime. In 2012, almost 7,000 people were convicted in federal courts for marijuana offenses, more than for any other type of drug. At the same time, prisons are overcrowded by almost 40%.

Quality of life just happens to be one of Amsterdam’s best qualities.
Quality of life just happens to be one of Amsterdam’s best qualities.


When you consider these numbers it makes you wonder what life would be like if we adopted a similar approach towards non-violent crime offenses. What type of impact would this have on our society in the U.S.? How would it directly impact the issue of overcrowding? Who’s future would no longer be ruined due to a non-violent charge? (Oh, remember that time in The Wire when Major Colvin decides to test de facto legalization of the drug trade within the limits of a few uninhabited city blocks in Baltimore, and his subordinating officers dubbed it “Hamsterdam?” No? We don’t either.) We can always speculate about what this might look like, but what we do know is that there is an alternative option that seems to work just fine in one of the most prosperous and productive nations in the world. 


Add yours →

  1. Way back in 1996 I was studying in Den Haag and we took a day trip to Amsterdam. We spent four hours in the red light district. LHM! It was too much! But…we are doing a reunion trip, so…LOL!


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