By William J. Furney
- This trip occurred several years ago, and I wrote about it at the time. But on a subsequent trip to Rome, Italy, my laptop died, taking the story with it. I recall the Amsterdam visit with mirror-like clarity, and given my desire to recount the events that happened, and my dismay at losing my piece, I have now rewritten the article.
I am reluctantly shuffling into a pharmacy in Amsterdam, because I have sciatica and am in constant, severe pain and can barely walk at all. I’ve spent the night on an Airbnb floor (minus the air-mattress bit) and a large part of the morning sitting on the shower floor, hot water cascading down my bent back as I try to get some relief from the searing electric pain that starts above my waist and shoots down my left leg like an unrelenting lighting strike.
It’s the result, I am sure, of a workout gone awry: sit-ups performed in such a way that they pinched nerves that have been protesting ever since.
“Do you need help?” a kind woman at Dublin Airport asked as I awkwardly tried to make it down the stairs and out to the awaiting aircraft. “Thanks, but no; I’m fine.” Only I wasn’t, and now I needed more of the painkillers I’d been munching for the last while.
I am in the Dutch capital of 165 canals or a few days with my friend Matt, from Manchester, England, and we have just taken a boxy tram from our accommodation to nearby Dam Square, the central plaza aptly named, as is the city, in a country of dams where nearly one-third of its landmass is below sea level — the lowest point almost 7 metres beneath. It’s a centuries-old battle to keep the waters out, as regaled in the fable of the little Dutch boy who stuck a finger into a leaking dyke and saved his town.
I had arrived from the airport by train the previous evening, and promptly got lost, in heavy rain, and kept walking into streams of bikers in what is the bike capital of the entire world. Dutch people I stopped to ask for directions to my Airbnb house were helpful and took their time to explain, one man looking up the location on his phone and patiently advising me how to get there — my phone didn’t have a signal. I ended up in a coffee shop, to ask for yet more directions, and the middle-aged man behind the counter pulled open a drawer to reveal various kinds of joints stuffed into it; he asked which I would like. A young man several stools down the bar was puffing on one.
I ordered a coffee and asked both men if they knew how to get to my place; by now, I’d been walking the drenched streets for about an hour. They didn’t. I left, saw a taxi, hailed it, hopped in and several minutes later was at my door. “What took you so long?” said Matt, who had arrived from England several hours earlier, cracking open a beer.
It wasn’t my first time in Holland — or The Netherlands, to give the northern European country its correct and provincially inclusive name — but up to now, I’d only been transiting at Schipol Airport (3 metres below sea level), so I was pleased to get into the city and see one of the most popular places on the planet. Amsterdam was last year third in the Top 100 City Destinations Index 2022, behind Paris and Dubai, and is famous for its flowers, cannabis cafes and Red Light district where sex workers advertise themselves in windows and gyrate to try lure punters in. Amsterdam’s tall, thin buildings linking the indolent canals give the city a peculiar, spindly look, their quirky architecture a result of a one-time tax on wide buildings. (The index is compiled through “research in 100 countries” and foreign tourist arrivals who spend at least 24 hours in a city.)
A Liquid Lunch in a Tiny Bar
I hobble out of the pharmacy clutching my pain pills, and Matt says he’d like a beer. It’s around midday and I suggest that it may be a tad early, but he dismisses my protestation and we wander in search of a boozer. It’s not long until we spot one, just off Dam Square, proclaiming in words on the window that it’s the smallest in the city. The advertising appears correct, because we enter what amounts to a tiny, narrow space, with barely enough room to move either side of the beer-lined bar. Several pints of lager later and we’re chatting merrily to English tourists who had come in after us, and for a while I’ve forgotten about my suffering.
Then we’re out prowling the streets again, with no real purpose other than to drink in the city — though hopefully not literally. The heavy smell, or even sickly stench, of pot is pervasive and lingers in the air, unwilling to be shifted by neither wind nor the swirl of passing traffic. I’m not a smoker and have no experience with marijuana, or any narcotic apart from magic-mushroom tea I once had in Bali, which made me violently vomit but was psychedelic — nor do I want any — although once, a friend offered a joint and I took one drag but didn’t like it.
People are standing in small groups, puffing away and getting stoned. We come to a row of coffee shops and Matt wants to go into one and try weed. He also, he says, has no experience with the drug, which is not legal in liberal Netherlands but famously “tolerated” if for personal use and in small amounts. I tell him I’ll have coffee and that’s it.
We choose a shop and the barista, a young man with short, black hair and a semi-serious demeanour, gives me a big, single-page menu coated in plastic. I can’t see it in the dimly lit, smoke-filled space so I take it to a window for a more illuminating look. The barista shouts at me to take the menu away from the window — “in case the police see there’s cannabis on it,” he says. Not so legal then.
I come across as all prissy and puritanical and tell Matt I am not smoking pot, and that he, as a father of three grown sons, shouldn’t either, that he should set an example. I’m not sure why I took that line, because the kids wouldn’t know and weed is hardly a big deal and is, in fact, entirely legal in places like California (and 21 other US states). At any rate, my cautionary words have no effect and soon he’s toking away on a fat joint that the barista recommended. By that point, I’d mellowed — perhaps all the ganja in the air — and also ordered “space brownies” with our coffee.
“How is it?” I asked of the reefer.
“It’s OK. Nothing’s happening, though. Have a drag.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re in Amsterdam. Try it at least.”
I looked around the packed cafe with all those chill folk puffing away and thought: What the hell.
One pull; handed it back; then another, and… nothing.
Crash and Burn
Treacly minutes poured languidly by until my vision suddenly did a hard focus into the back of the cafe, heralding a new and alarming perspective, one I neither liked nor wanted: something was taking control of my brain. I swivelled my head to the barista, behind the counter, my eyes open in wide alarm and visually imploring him for help.
I turned back to Matt, opposite me at the small, square table with our untouched hash cakes. He put the spliff down, onto the ashtray in the centre of the table, then interlocked the fingers of both hands, stared at me with glassy eyes, went rigid, leaned to his left and cashed onto the floor.
There he lay, unmoving, as I leapt to my feet, and peered down, wondering what to do. Our fellow patrons appeared indifferent to the medical drama and I was considering giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when the barrister rushed over and held out a sugar cube.
Matt came to, picked himself off the floor and swallowed the sugar.
“I thought you’d dropped dead,” I said, both of us in shock.
“You didn’t do anything to help me!” he thundered, although how he knew what I did, or didn’t do, while passed out, I don’t know.
“I was trying to do something to help, when the barista came over and gave you the sugar. Are you alright?”
Neither of us was. We sat and stared into nothing, and then a large man who may have been American came over from a neighbouring table and told us he saw what happened.
“Did you just get off a plane?” he asked. “Cos sometimes smoking a joint straight after flying can cause that to happen.”
We told him we had flown in the previous day, and, satisfied with our answer, went back to his table. I know now, thanks to Google and even-better ChatGPT, that marijana can cause a sudden and drastic drop in blood pressure, making some people faint, so maybe that’s what happened. In any event, the frightening episode was short-lived.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said to Matt. It must have been around 4pm or slightly later. Instead of relaxing me, all the couple of hits I’d taken had done was to make me anxious, if not paranoid. I couldn’t bear to stay in the coffee shop a second longer.
I hailed a passing taxi as we exited, and as we were getting in, the barista came running out — with more sugar. He gave a fistful of cubes to Matt and said he was sorry about what happened.
The ride back to the Airbnb house felt like it took forever; I had developed a sort of tunnel vision, and all I could see was a small circle of the road directly ahead. I couldn’t wait to escape the vehicle, and when it eventually did stop, after what was a ride of about 10 or 15 minutes, I almost ran inside the house.
But our journey into marijuana hell was just beginning.
Sleepless in a Night of Pot-Induced Terror
Apart from breakfast, we’d had nothing to eat all day, so I thought it might help our drug-riddled minds to get something into our stomachs. I went to the kitchen and tried to make something, but it was useless: not only did neither of us feel like eating but we were both experiencing a kind of rollercoaster wave of high-ness that kept lashing at us every few minutes, and it was freaking me out.
“Here it comes again,” I said, as I stepped out into the small garden to get fresh air I hoped would help. Then this huge hit of high during which I was immobilised, terrified and could do nothing. Then it subsided, only for the intoxicating, overpowering tsunami-high to return minutes later.
It went on for hours — an arresting and paralysing sensation I could not repel and had no control over whatsoever.
I went to the living room and found Matt on the sofa, texting. “I’m telling my kids I love them,” he said, unsure if he would survive the night. As was I, for both of us, as this living nightmare showed no sign of abating and, if anything, seemed to be getting more intense.
Finished texting, Matt stood and said, “I want a pizza,” declaring he was going across the busy, several-lane street to a nearby supermarket to get one.
“Just order a pizza. You’re not in a state to cross a road, especially that one, never mind trying to buy something in a shop,” I said, but he didn’t listen and left.
In the long minutes that followed, I imagined him struck by a car and me having to explain what happened to his family. It was a paranoia added to the glue-like worries I had been stuck with since the first drag on that awful joint.
Probably about 15 minutes or so later, Matt was back, frozen pizza in hand; he cooked it straight away and scoffed the lot. I was still on my terrifying rollercoaster rides and not interested in food. I spent the night walking in and out of the garden, trying to alleviate the uncomfortable high-rides I couldn’t get off. Eventually, I made something simple in the kitchen — I don’t recall what — and had a semblance of a dinner.
“Let’s watch TV,” I said, in the hope that it might calm us down and imbue a sense of normalcy in our worlds gone mad.
But we couldn’t make sense of the programmes — not because they were in another language: a new meaning to “Double Dutch” — and couldn’t focus on anything to save our pitiful lives. So after a while of flicking through channels, I suggested we call it a night.
But due to the elevated and excited state of my overstimulated, if not shocked, brain, sleep was out of the question. I lay in bed like Lazarus, waiting to be restored, and staring at a big clock on the wall, its long second hand ticking the reluctant hours by. I tried to doze, but then was convinced I would never wake up, so it was better to stay in the land of the awake. Some respite came towards dawn, when I eventually drifted off.
Somehow, we were fine the next morning, and, and went about the business of seeing more of Amsterdam. I am not, generally, enamoured by cities, instead preferring a more natural environment of trees, beaches, mountains and fields. I have lived in several big places, including the chaotic megacity of Jakarta and its 10 million inhabitants and snarling traffic jams that leave you stuck on the road, mostly unmoving, for hours. Moving to pristine Bali and its refreshing, jade ricefields was a refreshment.
National monuments and historic buildings that dot cities are certainly worth seeing, yes — as well as various museums and galleries — but I have no interest in looking at row after row of shops selling things I mostly do not need. And then there’s the nonstop noise, from construction sites, endless roadworks and all that traffic that shrouds metropolises in a fog of deadly diesel and other toxic fumes. It’s no wonder city-dwellers are neurotic — too much squashed into one space, all driving each other mad and trying to outdo each other in a futile race to the top. New York, surely the home of the Faustian pact, is so stuffed with people and stuff that it is sinking under its own weight. Cities should be banned.
Apparently pot can remain in your body for up to 30 days, so it probably wasn’t surprising when I was struck by another high-wave while on the train back to the airport the following day. It was strange, agonising and I vowed never to smoke this vile substance again. By the time I arrived at the airport I was practically hallucinating, and when I strapped myself into my seat on the Aer Lingus plane and awaited departure to Dublin, I looked up at a commotion by the front door: a young man was asking a crew member for water and looking like he was in his own world of pot paranoia.
Just another tourist suspended in the Amsterdam high life.
Since I had this horrifying experience with marijuana in Amsterdam, after only taking a couple of drags from a joint, I have learned that some cannabis sold in the city is so potent that it causes people to lose all sense of reality and even jump off buildings, thinking they can fly, and plunge to their deaths.
People I later spoke to about my experience, and who apparently knew what they were talking about, said if you’re not relaxed while smoking weed, you’re going to end up in a paranoid state. I don’t know, and I will never try it again — what would have happened if I’d puffed away on the whole joint at that cafe?
It’s most likely different for different people, and given pot’s enduring popularity, it’s obviously pleasant, making people relax and talkative as well as giggly and getting “the munchies”. And then there are the medicinal uses, helping people to cope with cancer and other pains, anxiety and palliative and end-of-life care.
For the everyday user, these studies may be of concern:
- Photograph by Leif Niemczik.