Certainly at that time (the 1970s), the Netherlands was relatively progressive in that regard. This got known internationally, attracting many marijuana-loving visitors, even from outside of Europe. These often had to hide their use often in their home countries (in some more than others). It gave Netherlands, and especially its tourism-oriented capital Amsterdam, a “cool” image among “potheads” world wide.
Indeed, most coffeeshops in the Netherlands were established in Amsterdam, numerically and proportionally, mostly related to tourism in the capital. We’re talking about a few hundred locales in Amsterdam alone (400 around the year 2000), though coffeeshops appeared all over the Netherlands, especially in the cities. The very first coffeeshop, though, is said to have been started in the city of Utrecht, central Netherlands, already in 1968. They say, though, that this locale in Utrecht, called Sarasani, did not have the form of a coffeeshop as it got known, as the decriminalization legislation was not really implemented in 1968 yet. In Amsterdam, Mellow Yellow was founded as the first “coffeeshop” as such, in 1972.
A common myth – or misconception - is that smoking or selling marijuana is legal in the Netherlands. Strictly speaking, this is not the case. The selling of certain quantities of marijuana (over the years the maximum became less and less, by the way) is just “decriminalized”, while police turns on occasion a blind eye to how these coffeeshops obtain their marijuana to sell. That is namely largely through illegal trade, although cultivating your own marijuana plants is allowed by law. Again, up to a maximum (five plants at present). Most weed/marijuana to be bought in coffeeshops comes however by necessity from this illegal trade, often via international routes. South America to Northwest Spain (Galicia) is one such known and much used route, unfortunately – as on other routes – mixed up with other, harder drugs as well (like cocaine).
It must be said that over time drug laws, especially regarding soft drugs like marijuana, eased up in several countries outside of the Netherlands. Countries like Spain, Italy, Belgium have decriminalized its private use up to certain quantities. It is moreover at present still illegal but little enforced in the United Kingdom and Germany. In these countries there are no “coffeeshops” as in the Netherlands, but you rather have to “know people”, or they approach you informally in busy places (tourist areas with many young people, subway/underground stations etcetera).
Also some US states (like Colorado) have by now legalized marijuana use for medical purposes, while in Africa, South Africa has recently made a move toward liberalizing marijuana laws.
I live in Amsterdam now for about 15 years, but I used to live in a village about 20 kilometers south of that city, called Nieuw-Vennep. There was no coffeeshop there.
I got into reggae music in that village at about the age of 11 or 12, even before I made much visits to the city Amsterdam. And no, I did NOT get into reggae through smoking marijuana, because I did not. I have up to then never used marijuana (neither alcohol or cigarettes, but of course I was young), when I got into reggae music, nor for years after this. I am therefore the living proof that that is not necessary. It was strictly for musical and cultural reasons that I fell in love with reggae, partly because it connected with other Black music genres I got a liking for at that time.
Of course, when I got more into reggae, and thus into the “reggae scene” (well, in that village Nieuw-Vennep, where I grew up, the “scene” consisted of a handful of individuals, among which my brother and me), I found out about the connection to marijuana smoking, that was of course also alluded to in reggae lyrics (Kaya being one of the first Bob Marley albums I heard, another early one being the Wailing Souls’ album On The Rocks, with the song Ishen Tree). Especially some older kids in my surroundings, who visited Amsterdam or also nearby Haarlem regularly, took up the habit of smoking marijuana. Sometimes secretively, as not all parents were that liberal or understanding. I found it funny or intriguing, but did not feel a pressing need to start using marijuana too. I did not seek it actively, let’s just say.
I find this important to point out, because, to be honest, I object against the cliché and sterotypical association of both reggae music and Rastafari with smoking marijuana. This stereotype is in part perpetuated by many coffeeshops in Amsterdam, using Jamaican, reggae, and in some cases even Rasta-derived terms as their names, while often using other Rasta imagery as well (the red, green, and gold flag, the Lion of Judah, dreadlocks etcetera), but in most cases just for commercial reasons, not as statement of faith. This makes it somewhat insincere and dubious.
All this is too stereotypical, and therefore oppressive and denigrating. Reggae music is an interesting music genre, born of different cultural and artistic influences, part of the African Diaspora in Jamaica. An important expression of poor, oppressed people. Likewise, Rastafari is a beautiful spiritual movement, born of specific historical circumstances also part of that African Diaspora in Jamaica, as an intelligent, rebellious response by prophetic, inspiring thinkers as Marcus Garvey, and personified by an inspiring personality as Haile Selassie I. One may adhere or not to that faith, but it is certainly not of lesser value than known “religions” as Christianity (and its variants), Islam, or other ones.
What I find unfortunate, therefore, is that Rastafari becomes sometimes associated mainly with marijuana smoking, as is reggae music. With music scenes you might at least argue that “drugs” or certain substances (alcohol, cocaine, speed, lsd, xtc, meth) were/are associated with other music genres too (rock, punk, heavy metal, blues, country a.o.), having to do with the way certain artists/musicians supposedly are unadapted, free spirits living rough, alternative lifestyles, Not every artist can deal intelligently with that, leading even to self-destructive behaviour, stimulated by the “confusion of fame” (Kurt Cobain, Keith Richards, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix). Some known artist thus were effectively alcoholics or hard drug addicts. Compared to that, the common use of a soft plant-based substance like marijuana by many (no, not all) reggae artists and fans, is more harmless or ”innocent”.
The association of marijuana smoking with the Rastafari movement is more problematic, though. That cliché is upheld by the coffeeshops, the “mainstream media”, but also “fake Rastas” or wannabe’s, along with many “outsiders” seeking to denigrate a faith or movement they do not adhere to (nothing to do with them, therefore “bad”.. human being often are that biased). My problem with that is, is that it is not seen as – which it is - part of the ritual complex that some Rastafari adherentes choose (marijuana for meditation), but seen – unjustly - as essential or quintessential to Rastafari. That is not necessarily the case. Sure, some Rastas love to smoke marijuana when and after “sighting” Rastafari – perhaps connected in their mind-state and consciousness. That is, however, an individual choice. Just like some may like avocado more than mango or vice versa, or prefer lentils over beans or vice versa. Or like some like to swim, and others prefer riding the bicycle.
Rastafari is, however, primarily an entire Afrocentric movement with spiritual connections to Africa and Ethiopia, inspired by Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie I.
Marcus Garvey was furthermore not known to smoke marijuana (or cigarettes for that matter, neither did he drink alcohol much), and according to his own testimony, heard about marijuana use in Jamaica, of which he was in fact distrustful, regarding its effects.
In Jamaica, using marijuana had become common even before Marcus Garvey’s lifetime. According to historical sources, it was first brought by Indian indentured labourers working alongside Afro-Jamaicans, although other sources state that it started among Africans in Jamaica before that. The common term “ganja” for marijuana or weed among Jamaicans is of Indian (Hindi) origin. Anyway, it became a common practice among many poorer Afro-Jamaicans, as a relief from daily pressures. Just like some Europeans do with beer or wine (or even strong drinks like whisky) after work, or in the evenings.
Some argue (or hope?) that the creation of reggae music – or its development – was influenced by the custom of smoking marijuana in Jamaican culture. Its pace and feel and such. The rhythmic, polyrhythmic, and call-and-response stem of course from the African heritage, but the specific form reggae took might have been shaped by weed smoking by influential musicians.
It is hard to deny that in many recording studios, or among musicians where they gathered in Jamaica, marijuana smoking was common, often even while creating and recording songs. Different testimonies and videos from the 1970s and 1980s simply confirm this. Again, not so different from blues bars or studios where whisky or gin is drunk in quantities by the musicians. When one is drunk one feels different, thinks temporarily in a different way. The same applies to the THC effect of marijuana. This all might affect the kind of songs one writes, or how one plays.
This must in my opinion not be exaggerated. There is after all a deeper truth, confirmed by serious scientific studies. That is that “drugs”, alcohol, or hullucinogenic substances in general, do not change how a person “is” (character-wise), but rather how one “feels”, as it changes one’s mood. Ideally, it “relaxes the mind” when necessary, “focusses” it maybe, but does not change it. The good become better, the bad worse, very simply put. It does not change personalities so much.
I think that reggae’s development as a rich, creative music genre can be attributed more to an artistic, cultural, and social (poverty) climate, inducive to it. Thus, more to personalities, than to moods. Much broader than the marijuana use custom alone.
For his book on Dub Reggae called ‘Dub: soundscapes & shattered songs in Jamaican reggae’ (2007), author Michael A. Veal recorded testimonies of people connected with the origins of the instrumental, “remixing” Dub genre in Reggae music. Dub, with some “spacey” aspects, is by many associated most with the marijuana influence in Jamaica. Testimonies in Veal’s book about the originator of Dub, King Tubby, however contradict this. King Tubby was an inventive technician and musician, creating a new genre from Roots Reggae, building his own studio, remixing existing songs into essentially a new “rhythm pattern”, using echo, other effects like reverb, and fading in and out of separate instruments. Then, this was very innovative. People working with King Tubby at the time (since the late 1960s and in the 1970s), said King Tubby never smoked marijuana, nor allowed it inside his house/studio (people had to go a while to the yard or patio to smoke). Neither did another influential engineer in reggae and dub, Errol Thompson.
For this reason, the author Veal does not consider Dub a Jamaican, reggae, “ganja” variant of “psychedelic music” that arose elsewhere. Not in its origins, anyway.
Lee “Scratch” Perry, another influential person within reggae, wih his Black Ark studio since the 1970s, was more lenient. Musicians actually liked that he allowed people to smoke freely inside his studio. He smoked marijuana then as well, although he drank alcohol at times too. Maybe it influenced his producing, music, or in general the music recorded by several artists at the Black Ark. On the other hand, later in his life, Perry said that – looking back – he imagined that his creative ideas from that time had more to do with himself, his own personality, than with the effects marijuana might have had. Later, already in his seventies and residing in Switzerland, he – according to his own testament – stopped smoking marijuana for that reason. He still drank occasionally “weed/marijuana tea”, though. This tea is by the way commonly drank by especially older Caribbean and Jamaican people, for its attributed health benefits, even by those who do not really smoke (like aged women). It is said to help against stomach ailments, and assure a general feel of balance. Wisdom from folk medicine.
The general move in Jamaican music since the 1980s toward faster and less “mystic” music (which characterized the Roots Reggae era), is likewise attributed to changes in substance use, as cocaine became more commonly available in Jamaica since the 1980s. Thus the music became faster and more frenetic, the reasoning goes. General effects of marijuana on moods and paces of music, or of cocaïne, can in this case not be excluded, and it might indeed have had an influence.
Again, though, I think this should not be exaggerated, as it can relate to other factors as well (social and cultural changes), while faster paced music arose elsewhere too, where cocaine use is not very common (Timba in Cuba for instance, or Reggaeton).
Much of Roots Reggae is influenced by the Rastafari movement. This became evident especially in the 1970s and early 1980s. Many Rastas sang or toasted about marijuana smoking, as a sacrament or not. Anyway, that it should be free (only recently has it been officially decriminalized in Jamaica). Yet, these lyrics point at economic aspects as well: for many poor people, among them Rastafari adherents, cultivating marijuana was the main source of income, with connections to local and even foreign trade. They had to, being discriminated and excluded from the rest of the economy and society. That the first Rastafari “village” in Jamaica, led by Leonard Howell, and started in 1940, called Pinnacle, included marijuana cultivation as income source, cemented an early connection between Rastafari adherents and marijuana. That it gave state forces an excuse to persecute Rastas, was however also an unfortunate side-effect of this.
Rastafari is not a spiritual movement with many set, written rules. That marijuana smoking is used as a sacrament and strictly for meditation is adhered to by many Rastas, yet there are many Rastas who do not smoke marijuana, or smoke it for recreational reasons too, though stricter Rastas sometimes oppose this.
This shows that the connection of Rastafari and marijuana should not be exaggerated (neither simplified).
Talking about reggae lyrics (Rastafari-influenced or not), it is interesting to note that besides several other terms including “ganja”, “collie”, “herb” or “ganja herb”, or simply “marijuana”, another term is also regularly used by Jamaican artists for “marijuana” (or “weed” or “cannabis”). “Sensemillia” or “sinsemilla”. Like marijuana, the word sinsemilla comes from the Spanish language (probably Mexican Spanish). Marijuana means “mary jane”, as a playful allegory, perhaps, in Spanish (Maria and Juana combined). The Spanish J sounds guttural, especially in official, European Spanish (North and Central Spain mainly), but less in many parts of Latin America where it became more an aspirated H sound (as in much of South Spain, and the Canary islands). This translated in the pronunciation like “MariWanna”for English and other non-Spanish speakers.
I am Spanish-speaking, and Spanish was in fact the first language I learned (through my Spanish mother), so these linguistic and pronunciation issues interest me. Sinsemilla is even more interesting. It comes from “sin semilla”, meaning “without seed” in Spanish, referring to the female plants used for marijuana smoking (having most THC). The double LL is mostly pronounced as Y sound in Spanish, also in standard Spanish. In some Northern Spanish accents and in Catalan (and Portuguese, by the way), also differently, as LY, so two separate letters. Dutch people tend to pronounce it as such (and thus wrongly). They say “CastiLYa” (for the region, former kingdom of Castilla, or Castile), while the correct pronunciation would be “CastiYa”. Or pronounce the known Spanish saffron-based rice dish Paella wrongly as PaeLYA, and not as PaeYa.
Likewise, Semilla (seed) should be pronounced as SemiYa and not as SemiLYa, which is done anyway. In the Netherlands, by English-speakers and others, and thus strictly speaking wrong.
Interesting to me is how most Jamaican artist pronounce Sin Semilla or Sinsemilla, yet again different. Not the LL as LY, neither really as the “correct” Y, but the LL in Semilla tends to become a NY (like the Spanish letter ñ) in Jamaican English, so with a slightly nasal sound. The Sin (“without” in Spanish) tends to become a E sound (as in GET), rather than as EE (as in KEY or DEED) as Spanish pronounce it. In many reggae lyrics, therefore, Sinsemilla has come to sound as sensemiña (senseminya) or sensimiña (sensiminya) in Jamaican reggae lyrics. Perhaps a Creole, or indirectly, African influence, while other Europeans than Spaniards pronounce it yet again different, but then according to norms from other European languages.
BACK TO AMSTERDAM
Local and national authorities have become in recent times less complacent with the “coffeeshops” in Amsterdam. With the proclaimed aim of improving Amsterdam’s image and tourism, the number of coffeeshops has diminished, due to stricter regulations and withdrawn licences. Coffeeshops can – for instance – no longer be too closely located to schools. So, the number of coffeeshops has diminished somewhat in Amsterdam, though they still are quite numerous, especially in central parts and around. And yes – predictably – there is also a coffeeshop (I think) named after Sinsemilla in Amsterdam (West), yet with a name spelled as Sensemillia. Let’s hope their weed is better than their Spanish spelling..
This is not to say that “coffeeshops” are by definition innocent, unproblematic paradises that wicked authorities just want to bully. At times unreasonable legal restrictions or policies indeed come down to bullying. Aside from this, like with many things in this world, there are corrupted and immoral aspects regarding many Amsterdam coffeeshops.
The almost inevitable connection (at the “back door”, as they call it) with criminals and maffiosi, often at the same time involved with hard drug traffic and other crimes, is an already alluded to problem. Not always that visible, but certainly there.
Another problem is the quality of the marijuana product itself. Most popular (and expensive) types of marijuana or hash, with brand names like White Widow, Purple Haze, or Amnesia, tend to have high THC values, that are in fact “pumped up” artificially. This distances it more and more from being a “natural plant” that cannabis originally is/was, and even brings it closer in effects to cocaine. It is proven that this can have more negative health effects (on physiology and psychology). Yet, this artificial, “pumped up” marijuana is what is sold most in most coffeeshops. It is not “high grade”. Natural, “outside” marijuana/cannabis can be bought too, fortunately.
Talking about health – and returning a bit to the “reggae” theme – a new iniative has been taken on by Café The Zen, a reggae-minded club/café in the East of Amsterdam. Café the Zen is known as one of the “reggae hotspots” in Amsterdam, organizing reggae events and concerts regularly. Now – in fact: starting in Early 2017 - they added to their activities a cooperation with an organization called Suver Nuver, and the phenomenon of “(medical) social clubs”. These were already active in other cities in the Netherlands. Earlier initiatives of similar social clubs were started in Spain too. These social clubs aim at promoting the proven beneficial health effects of marijuana derivatives, like “weed oil”. It is known to help especially older/aged people, yet access to it was difficult due to its illegality. Suver Nuver seeks to improve this through the social clubs, gathering once a week (Sunday afternoon, I understood) at Café the Zen.
Around its opening a reggae party was organized, confirming a stereotype – that is true -, but understandable in its context. Plus, the health focus is a positive, empathic one, and the social clubs also have accessible prices, even for “low-budget people”.
One might be sceptical and think: “many plants, everything growing in nature can have beneficial health effects, why just marijuana?”. I must admit, that I myself have thought and said this once to a few of the people involved. On the other hand, a focus on a proven product like “weed oil”, that is furthermore more easily obtainable in a city like Amsterdam, makes some sense. They intend to work together with growers, but also coffeeshops, but for medical purposes, not commercial ones (like coffeeshops).
They see this furthermore as an innovative and better way toward legalization of marijuana, with which I in itself agree. Spanish reggae singer Morodo too, by the way. In an interview I saw with him, he claimed he was (like several other reggae artists, haha) in favour of marijuana legalization. He feared – though – that then big, powerful commercial companies and multinationals (like Phillip Morris, or Shell) might take over/dominate, allowing no more space for smaller growers, but neither for health, social justice, or environmental considerations.
Anyway, this reggae club Café the Zen, on the eastside of Amsterdam, happens to be a convenient and sympathetic place for Suver Nuver, and its medical social club.