Scoring Herbs in Amsterdam
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
For some people from the North of Europe, salty liquorice is an addiction which has to be satisfied periodically – but the nearest source of my favourite sweet is the Netherlands. John eventually agreed to combine our respective cravings with a weekend break and we flew to Amsterdam on a mission to buy cheap tobacco for both of us and a year’s supply of salty liquorice for me. I was also looking forward to the odd spliff.
The weather was beautiful and it felt great to be back on the continent. I had grown up close to the Dutch border and being in Amsterdam was like a miniature home-coming. We strolled through the sunny streets hand-in-hand.
I purchased some mild weed from one of the many coffee shops but John, who does not smoke hash, did not want to sit in the gloomy interior. Coffee shops are no longer licenced to sell alcohol, so we went for a beer on a sunny terrace overlooking a canal. The waiter approached with a drinks menu and an ice-cream chart. I asked whether it was permitted to smoke “you know what…er…” here in the open.
He laughed. “Of course,” he said: “You can’t buy or sell here, but you can smoke anywhere. Feel free!”
Looking around a little apprehensively to ensure I did not set a bad example to the kids, I lit up and took a relaxing toke. The stress of the flight was quickly forgotten.
The weather was perfect for a cycling tour around the city so we set off through the bustling streets in search of a bicycle shop.
“Hash, Ecstasy, Cocaine?” A bearded guy hustled up to us, blatantly in the middle of a pedestrian zone. We shook our heads: “No thanks!”
We were accosted periodically. I laughed off the dealers, wondering whether everybody was perpetually off their heads in this city – it all appeared so normal. When we passed one of the many “headshops” selling magic mushrooms and herbal aphrodisiacs, I decided to take a look inside. I wanted to replenish my supplies of kava, the relaxing herb of the South Pacific.
Taken in small amounts, kava is a mood-lifter and a tranquiliser, in fact it is nature’s own Valium. Maurice (“Moman”) Valentine’s brilliant story “The Kava King” is a nice introduction. In Europe, kava has been on sale in health food shops for a number of years. I found that whenever I started snapping irritably at people, I could dissolve three of the little capsules in a mug of tea, drink it and feel considerably more mellow. The herb is a Godsend for sufferers of PMT – but no sooner had I discovered it that it was pulled off the shelves. Apparently, some people had experienced liver problems while taking kava, although they had probably also taken alcohol or prescription drugs. While some people may react to the herb itself, the risk is miniscule compared to that of drinking booze or popping pills. To put this into perspective: there are people who suffer from potentially fatal nut allergies, and peanuts have not been taken off the shelves. Kava has been used in the South Pacific for millennia; even the Queen of England partook during a recent state visit to Fiji.
Here in the more liberal Netherlands, I could make up my own mind about what herbs I wanted to take. I would re-stock my supplies in the headshop and worry about the politics behind the licencing of herbal supplements another time. Or so I thought.
We stepped inside and looked around the impressive display of aphrodisiacs, herbal chill-pills and natural amphetamines. There was even a cocktail that promised to clean up traces of street-drugs from your system; handy for a job-medical. But I could not find any kava. I asked the guy at the counter.
“Kava-kava?” he asked, I think he actually looked alarmed. Maybe they were out of stock?
“Yeah, kava-kava, you know the relaxing stuff from the South Pacific.”
Now he definitely looked alarmed.
“Wait, I’ll check upstairs!”
I shrugged and we passed the time looking at a large chiller cabinet of fresh mushrooms that would not be out of place in the vegetable section at Harrod’s Foodhall. I had to remind myself that we were in a headshop and it would be unwise to use these particular mushrooms in a stir-fry. After a few minutes the guy returned.
“You’ll have to ask the boss,” he said: “He’s out at the moment, can you come back in half an hour?”
“Sure,” we shrugged and went off to hire our bicycles.
When we returned, the boss was in. He pulled us to one side.
“You know,” he whispered although there was no one in earshot, “that kava-kava has been banned?”
“What? Here as well?!” I exclaimed.
“Ssshhh…” he put a silencing finger to his mouth: “I may be able to help you out…we have a little left in stock. How much do you want.”
“Oh, five packs.”
He nodded and disappeared upstairs. Once again we were left to look around the botanicals and a wide selection of smoking paraphernalia and Marijuana-grower’s kits. Before long, our friend returned.
“Sorry,” he said apologetically: “I’ve only got three left.”
He charged us what they cost when they were still on sale. I had been lucky and scored. For a couple of months at least I could remain calm by resorting to a traditional herbal remedy instead of Valium or booze.