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Rick Steves Headshot

More Sex And Drugs In The Low Countries

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On my research trip through the Low Countries, I discovered several examples of the bold Dutch and Belgian approach to challenging social issues.

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Dutch Pot Smokers Are Pro-Choice
"Coffeeshops" throughout the Netherlands sell a variety of perfectly rolled marijuana joints. With their Dutch green thumbs and state-of-the-art greenhouse technology, the pot sellers no longer need to import their exotic strains. It may be called "Thai" and it may smoke like Thai... but it's Dutch-grown, Dutch-taxed and Dutch-smoked.

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Needle Bridge Has Lost Its Edge
Amsterdam once had the grittiest, most disgusting and most dangerous sailors' quarter you could imagine: Zeedijk street, right where the city hits the harbor. I remember venturing in here in the 1970s, when shady characters seemed to support every streetlamp and where the police just kept their distance. It was sex and hard drugs and wandering lonely souls.

The Dutch decided to do something about this problem to take back this potentially wonderful corner of their city. Forty years ago, they decided to decriminalize the sale of marijuana (in "coffeeshops") and then clean out the hard drug trade. Reviewing the policy recently, the Dutch have found that pot smoking has not gone up, the population of hard drug users is smaller and aging and street crime has diminished. Whenever reactionary forces push lawmakers to change this pragmatic approach to drug abuse and tighten up on pot laws, gangs and criminals reappear in the streets, violence and turf wars ensue, and recreational soft drug users need to do business with criminal hard drug pushers. Today, throughout the Zeedijk zone, restaurants flourish -- and what was nicknamed "Needle Bridge" is a delightful place to stop for a photo.

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Red Light Antwerp -- Just a Trip to the Mall
Many American tourists find Europe's red light districts titillating. There was a time when ladies of the night were loitering around train stations and on the wrong side of the tracks in every sizable city. With stricter law enforcement, modern affluence and the advent of easy access to porn on the Internet, the tourist rarely sees prostitutes on the street in Europe anymore. In many countries, brothels are allowed and limited to a certain zone.

Amsterdam's Red Light District is shrinking, as city officials are not renewing leases to red light landlords -- or are giving them to other, more preferred businesses. Ports (like Hamburg and Amsterdam) are known for their red lights. The most impressive I've seen is in Antwerp. About four city blocks are pedestrianized and feel almost like a shopping mall. Here you can see the police station parked right in the middle of all that glowing red. I did notice that, while Antwerp has the biggest and slickest red light district, unlike other big cities, it has almost no sleaze elsewhere in town.

In a sense, they cleaned the city up by sweeping it all into a small pile.