Emily in Amsterdam: A California Girl Discovers European Cannabis Culture
Join Hybrid staff writer (and Penguin author) Emily Beyda as she explores the similarities – and differences – between California’s and Amsterdam’s cannabis culture.
As a California native, I’ve seen my home state’s cannabis culture grow with impressive speed.
It may have started with shady head shops along Sunset Boulevard and ads in the back pages of LA Weekly where doctors boasted of their willingness to prescribe cannabis for any medical condition under the sun. Still, today Cali offers a seriously impressive homegrown weed culture.
So when I booked a trip to Amsterdam to visit an old friend, I was curious to see how the world’s most famous destination for legal weed compared to the options available in my hometown.
Here’s what I discovered on my journey to the heart of European cannabis culture and how California’s new school approach stacks up.
While medical cannabis has been legal in California since 1996, we came to the world of legal recreational weed in 2006.
On the other hand, Amsterdam has been offering cannabis for recreational consumption in the city’s famous coffee shops since 1976, 20 years before those California weed doctors started.
As a result, cannabis culture in the Netherlands felt settled, without the gold rush capitalist vitality of California’s weed world.
Instead, there seemed to be a head shop or two in every neighborhood, with a predictable concentration of tourist traps selling branded t-shirts and pipes in the city center.
California’s weed world is scattered, more of a fringe industry whose legality varies city by city.
As a result, dispensaries here feel less like neighborhood pharmacies and more like upscale retail destinations, blasting loud music and offering an immersive shopping experience instead of Amsterdam’s structured browsing vibe.
Embracing Cafe Culture
Because of their storied history, Amsterdam’s cafes are worth visiting for any weed-loving world traveler.
And when they say cafe, they mean it!
From the tourist hotspots to the quaint neighborhood spots, every shop we spotted had a dedicated outdoor or indoor lounge area for consuming the goods, sometimes both!
The cafes offered a laid-back, old-world atmosphere, with little zinc tables in the sunshine or comfortable window seats where smokers could gaze upon the street below.
The atmosphere was inviting, welcoming visitors to sit down and relax to indulge in their purchases. We saw people reading a book in many shops as they smoked or groups of friends passing their joints from hand to hand as they engaged in lively conversation.
While some places in California offer options for on-site consumption, it’s much rarer.
Unless you’re in a tourist hot spot like Venice Beach, the approach is to buy your weed and go about your business. Smoking in public is generally frowned upon, with most people keeping their cannabis consumption discrete while outside of their homes.
A Return to Mids
The public social atmosphere of Amsterdam’s cannabis culture means that people aren’t as interested in the supercharged THC-rich flower that is the specialty of many California dispensaries.
When you smoke a joint in public before grocery shopping or taking the tram, extreme psychoactive couch lock becomes considerably less appealing.
As a result, the cannabis in Amsterdam felt like a throwback, with a session smoking approach more common stateside in the 90s and early aughts.
The highest THC concentration we witnessed in the coffee shops was 24%, a decidedly mild option compared to California’s heavy hitters. It’s excellent for all-day consumption like you’d enjoy a light ABV beer, indulging early and often throughout the day.
This gentle approach makes Amsterdam cannabis perfect for all-day social smokers, who return to the plant to ease stress and indulge throughout the afternoon.
Still, Amsterdam-style consumption is less helpful for the one-hitter, medical approach many California smokers favor. So if you’re someone who likes their weed as a functional treatment rather than a sensory indulgence, California cannabis might be better for you.
All About the Options
In true American fashion, California cannabis is all about choice.
There’s a vast range of options, from the cheapest strains to the most luxurious indulgences.
You can also find it in every form imaginable, from flower to vapes, to edibles of every description. When it comes to cannabis, California offers a true choose your own adventure experience.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Amsterdam’s approach is conservative and old school. The range of prices was more constrained, from 13 euros an ounce for the cheapest flower to 17 euros an ounce for the most expensive.
The product offerings were also limited, with little more than flower for sale in most shops.
Vape options were almost non-existent, and the few baked goods and candies we saw on offer were sold in regular bakeries in the most touristy spots in the city, making us suspicious as to whether they actually contained weed!
The Takeaway: Which Weed World is Better?
So now you know the differences between Amsterdam and California cannabis culture, let’s break it down.
Who does it better?
Ultimately, your feelings on the charms of California vs. Amsterdam weed will probably be closely linked to your feelings about the general culture in Europe vs. the USA.
Although the options there are more limited, Amsterdam offers a gentile, old-world charm largely missing from California’s fast-paced, bigger is better, weed scene.
But California leaves you spoiled for options, able to consume weed in a more potent form via whatever method you prefer, from sparkling water to vapes in every flavor you can imagine.
As for me, I say, why pick?
Exploring cultural differences is part of what makes travel so fun! And as we return to safe post-vaccination travel, I look forward to discovering more of what the international world of legal cannabis offers.