The Dutch policy of tolerating the sale of cannabis to adults is well known. Their separation of cannabis consumers from those who sell other drugs led to one of the lowest rates of hard drug use in the world. Still controversial and subject to constant tweaking, the lowland nation remains resolutely determined their policy is the best in the world. It all began with one man in 1973.
Chris: You opened the first coffee shop in Amsterdam, the Mellow Yellow. How did it all start?
Wernard: In the old days in Holland, everybody who was smoking was a bit of a dealer. So when you had ten smokers there was always a couple of guys that knew where to get the dope from and who were the guys that were buying it and sold part of it to their friends. The whole trick was to have at the end of the day a piece for yourself that was free to smoke. Like everywhere is even today, we have the same kind of situation.
In those days there were places where there were a lot of smokers, vegetarian restaurants, foodstores, coffeeshops, cafes, things like that and that meant that were also a lot of dealers – sometimes in the coffee shops there were like twenty dealers at various stages and prices. Our idea was to end that all and to have a coffee shop with just one dealer, who is one of us of course, who is sitting in front of the bar pretending to be just a customer. In those days police couldn’t shut a shop down just because somebody was found in there dealing. So that was the big lie let’s say.
The other thing that we did was we treated hash and grass the same like you treat Bountys or Mars Bars. You go to a big store and you buy a big box and then you sell them one by one. So we brought a kilo of this, a kilo that, and then cut it up into pieces of ten and 25 gilders, put it in plastic bags and then thought that the problem was solved, and that that was the golden coffee shop formula because that made it accessible to everybody.
Now suddenly everybody could go to a coffee shop and buy hash and grass and you did not need to know a lot about hash and grass itself. You could just go to the one guy who is sitting at the bar and ask what have you got, and he mentions all these words “I’ve got Nepalese and afghan and this and that” and so on. Then you just reply just give me ten gilders of that Nepalese and then you got ten gilders of the Nepalese. Before that you needed to know what it was, what the variety was, what the price was what a good price was, you had to bargain the price, things like that – that was all over. Now suddenly everyone could come and score.
So within a couple of months we had a lot of customers. Sometimes customers lined up outside on the pavement and of course that attracted attention from a lot of our visitors and friends who saw us doing that and thought this is a good trick that these guys found we can do it also and we can do it better. So that is when coffee shops like Restaurant and The Bulldog started and they did it better, you know, because they were much more efficient than we were. We were just interesting in having a free smoke for ourselves.
Like a social club. What was the authorities reaction when you first started?
Well, in the beginning we kept a low profile.
Even with the line of customers out the door?
Yes. Because tolerance only functions when you voluntarily restrict yourselves. That is why we called our shop not a coffee shop but a tea house, so that the outside world knew that is was not just a regular shop, but that there was something fishy going on in there. Better not know! That worked fine. It was about four or five years before we had our first bust. I opened up the shop in 1973 and the first bust we had in 1976 or so.
We were prepared. We had our stash hidden and we had certain systems to prevent them from finding the stash or the motherload and things like that, and that worked. We had about 3 or 4 busts and they never found our stash. The dealer they just arrested him and kept him for a couple of hours but then he had to appear in court or whatever 6 months or a year later and we didn’t care about that.
Were you ever the dealer?
Yes sometimes. I didn’t like it that much! It always had somebody who was doing it for me. I preferred to be the bar man so I had lots more communication possibilities and more time to play football – I like table football! Whenever it was quiet, I would rush downstairs and play table football and table football is one of the things that go better when you smoke! Because you need to focus completely on the game and forget about everyone else. When you’re high it goes very well, it increases your pleasure.
What was it about the time or place that allowed the tolerance to occur?
First because nobody knew we existed, and the place was named Mellow Yellow and Mellow Yellow was the title of a song by Donavon. It was about when you had nothing to smoke you could fry banana peel and smoke those and only the insiders know what the title meant. So we figured that when we called our shop Mellow Yellow outsiders would think “its just that Donavon song” and insiders would know “oh that’s something to do with smoking”. So we kept a low profile for the first couple of years – nobody knew we existed. The phenomena of police busting coffee shops started after they busted us a couple of times. After that [busting people] became an industry.
How long did that continue and what made them stop?
Well, they busted us three of four times and then in 1978 we had a fire in our shop and I was looking for other things to do because I was getting bored. I had a friend in America who said come and see me and after the fire I suddenly had a lot of time. I booked a flight and went to the States and saw my American friend and I noticed something totally new. I saw Americans who were smoking and dealing marijuana that was grown in America. Then we realised that the marijuana the Americans were growing was better than the third world country grass. They were getting like $10,000 per kilo. If you would get maybe a dollar a gram for Dutch grass that was fantastic, and nobody was even willing to even pay that and imported grass wasn’t much better.
Our hippy idea was that marijuana growing would be successful and cannabis would never go away.
So in the beginning we just brought a couple of kilos in our bags to Holland. Nobody suspected anybody to take drugs from America to Holland so there was not chance for anybody to check. In the beginning we would smoke that and sell whatever excess we had. Now we had this huge group of expanding coffee shops now and the product needs to be smuggled in to Holland and it would be a good idea if we teach the Dutch to grow their own. So we asked an old man who was 65 at that time [“Old Ed”] who was a grower just busted in America – why don’t you come over to Holland and help us grow this marijuana? We will do two things – we will sell it to the coffee shops and then I’ll talk to the Dutch and say you can grow it yourself and if you don’t believe it you can go to the coffee shop and pay a lot of money. So that is how I convinced the Dutch that it was worthwhile to grow marijuana in Holland using the special seeds we have. We call ourselves the green team and it took us five years to convince the Dutch people – from 1980 to 1985.
In 1985 my green team was expanding constantly with foreigners who also wanted to try this successful thing that we were doing. In ‘85 we were growing 200 kilos per year and I was selling it in the coffee shops.
If the police had caught you what would have happened?
Our first bust was in 1983 – that was a policeman that came up with his bike. We had a farm in Freisland and in the front of the farm we had small fake vegetable gardens, and in the back we had a lot of tall trees, and behind the tress there was huge plants growing. We had 1000 kilo of plants that year and this policeman came up in his bicycle while we were doing our fake vegetable garden, and says “Hi guys what are you doing here?” and we said “we are just growing vegetables and enjoying the outside country life”. And he said “well, I don’t know what you are doing here and I don’t want to know it either. But I want to tell you one thing – whatever you did last year you shouldn’t try to do it again this year”. And we were like “oh what are you taking about?” and then he left. It took him maybe ten minutes, this whole conversations, but in a way he busted us because we moved maybe 1000 females that we had in the back – that weren’t that big maybe fifty centimetres – but we could never harvest at this place. So we had to find other locations and we found 10, 20, 30 different locations. We put our plants over there, we made deals with the local growers: You take care of the plants, harvest them and sell them and we’ll give them a cut of the profit. That is how we really started to expand.
Then in 1985, when we were 200 kilos a year, the green team was joined by other Americans who said we need to grow in greenhouses and the greenhouse need to be at least 5000 square metres and another voice said we need to grow in 5 greenhouse, and I thought well it’s not my cup of tea – I’m not into making money and I’m also not into becoming a criminal. It’s better these guys go out on their own and I go onto something else – I want to build the perfect football table and in order to that I needed to make money, so I started to make lights.
I was already importing lights from America. Then I got so much I decided to make my own reflectors and light systems. I had to employ a friend of mine to install these light systems, and that really was the beginning of Positronics, the first grow shop in Europe. Within seven years I had 60 people working for me, a newspaper, a restaurant. A big demand and lots of money but I wasn’t interested in money, I was interested in selling the idea of enriching your life by selling a few plants.
People came to our shop from all over Holland and all over Europe. Journalists came to our shop and it was fine for me, because I knew if I talked to a journalist for an hour they would go home and broadcast this thing and people would read about what I wanted to tell them. My record was one session with 60 minutes and it was 30 million viewers. Successful. And that is how the idea of growing your own marijuana spread really fast all around the world. Nederweit is now Euro weed. And our idea – our hippy idea – was that marijuana growing would be successful and cannabis would never go away. And that cannabis was an improvement of modern lifestyle.
I will say that cannabis is a entheogen drug which means it is a drug that enables people to sense god in themselves and in others, so instead of old fashioned religion it is a new religious kind of lifestyle in a way, and such a product should never be commercialised. It should always be accessible to society, only accessible for 10 15 percent of the population who is interested and able to confront themselves with themselves, because that is what cannabis does: it confronts you with yourself.
What are the key changes that have happened since then?
Look at me, a mature man, I don’t wear a suit and tie. When I started growing marijuana and when I started coffeeshops it was impossible for old males to go around without a suit and tie, all males have the same leather shoe. Now days everyone is clothed differently and that is one of the achievements of marijuana because marijuana was smoked by a lot of people who functioned as a role model like filmmakers, artists, famous people were all into smoking marijuana. Marijuana changed the world without most of the world knowing about it. It is much more free, liberal, much more fantasy, colour than ever before and that is due to marijuana.
Speaking of changes, the Dutch government has said it will close a lot of coffee shops in Amsterdam. Are the coffee shops a scapegoat or are there really problems?
A lot of coffee shop owners are not pioneers anymore, so they don’t know how to present their case in such a way so the public laughs and thinks “oh well let those guys go along with their thing as long as they don’t bother me”. Modern coffeeshop does bother everybody because it is a public place. Anybody can just walk into a coffee shop. That’s a scary thing for people who don’t like change, and the thing is that coffee shop owners don’t understand that they can only be tolerated when they present their business in such fashion that it is acceptable for the non smoker. That’s what they neglected to do. Because tolerance only works when you voluntarily limit yourself in presenting yourself.