Cannabis Cafes of Amsterdam

By Heather Abraham

In an intriguing Religion Nerd article entitled Cannabis: The American Sacrament Kenny Smith examined America’s passion for cannabis and suggests that cannabis, if legalized in the United States, may

come to function in ways comparable to other culturally sacred substances ritually consumed each day in the workaday world or with family and friends at dinner parties, picnics, baseball games, and holiday celebrations.

This intriguing statement made me wonder if the illegal status of cannabis somehow makes it more desirable and, I wondered, how it is understood in societies where cannabis is legal to consume?  

My recent, albeit brief, visit to Amsterdam provided the perfect opportunity for me to check out cannabis cafes and observe the dynamics of cannabis usage in an environment free from worry of prosecution.  Would I find a sacred or religious understanding of the consumption of cannabis in Amsterdam’s permissible atmosphere?  Or would I find a multitude of stoners reminiscent of Sean Penn’s character, Jeff Spicoli, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High? 

Within hours of landing at Schiphol Airport, Teo and I made our way to downtown Amsterdam, consumed a light lunch including a fabulous local beer, and set about checking out a few cannabis cafes.  Interestingly, we found that alcohol cannot be served in cannabis cafes, and that many cafes prohibit the use of tobacco products.  When I inquired about these restrictions, a waiter explained that the use of alcohol and tobacco can pollute the cannabis experience.  Interesting!  Coffee, on the other hand, was served at all the cafes I popped into and was consumed by most of those who imbibed in one of the establishments many varieties of cannabis.  The same waiter explained that caffeine can enhance the effects of cannabis and that the coffees served in pot cafes are some of the finest in the world.  That I can attest to!  

The first two cafes we checked out were overly crowded so we continued our exploration quickly finding and entering our third café.  I quickly secured a table and settled in as Teo joined the queue to purchase some coffee.  This particular café displayed their cannabis selection in a large display case which was surrounded with customers eagerly listening to the expert explanations of the subtleties of each variety. The daily selection or pot menu du jour was posted on a chalk board located behind the display case.  An in house specialist was available to explain to the inexperienced; suggesting mild varieties for green customers and more complex varieties for those long experienced.  Surprisingly, the music varied from Georgian Chants, selections from the Doors and the Rolling Stones, to a strange mélange of something akin to techno married to new age melodies.  The majority of the tables were aligned against one wall facing another wall that contained twelve television screens of varying size.  The screens flashed with a variety of images which intriguingly were, for the most part, religious in nature. 

As I happily snapped photos of these images, I caught the attention of a patron who was deeply involved in smoking a joint when I sat down.  He inquired as to why I was taking photos of the wall and when I explained my interest in the “religious” dynamics of the café, he pointed at the smoking joint and responded,

This is all you need to commune with god, the divine, or whatever you want to call it.  God is not out there but in here (pointing to his joint) and in here (pointing to his chest). This is how you find God—religion tries to keep you from God.

And with a wink and a smile, the patron floated away and out the door into the sunshine.  Teo and I drank our coffee (really the best ever) and watched the patrons as they sat, smoked, and stared at the screen of religious and nature images flashing on the screens in front of them.  Sadly, partway through our visit to the café, our camera battery died out.  The photos you see here represent many eastern religious traditions but I assure you Christianity, Islam, and Judaism were also included in the images.  Moses holding the ten commandments which on close inspection were stamped with images of cannabis plants, a cross rising from the mist, a young Billy Graham preaching his crusade, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his I had a Dream speech, Muslim pilgrims at Mecca, and Tammy Faye Baker with mascara stained tears were all prominently displayed to smoking onlookers.  There was very little conversation or intermingling between patrons, most of whom were males ranging from their early 20’s to late 60’s.  

After about an hour or so, Teo and I decided to enjoy a meal before heading back to our airport hotel.  No, we did not join the cannabis smoking patrons but a warning to any stopping in Amsterdam: beware of the special cake! 

So, what did I learn from this short but intriguing visit to Amsterdam’s cannabis cafes?  There was most certainly an air of sacrality residing in the cannabis cafes of Amsterdam in addition to the huge amounts of pot that were exchanged for huge amounts of money.  Unlike the hostile atmosphere cannabis users in the United States are exposed to, Amsterdam provides an open safe atmosphere in which to imbibe (for religious or entertainment purposes) in cannabis and in return, Amsterdam’s economy thrives.  If the United States legalizes cannabis in the future the American government may look to Amsterdam’s cannabis history for guidance.  With increasing pressure to legalize cannabis for medical purposes the possibility of legalized cannabis for religious or entertainment purposes are not so farfetched.  According to Smith’s article,

Currently, thirteen other states (such as Rhode Island and New Jersey), as well as the District of Columbia, have already passed medicinal marijuana laws and are poised to initiate dispensary programs similar to that in Colorado. Given the longstanding connection between economics and the sacred within American cultural history, it is worth taking seriously the possibility that, with widespread economic success and increased availability on the horizon, cannabis may well become a sacred reality for a great many Americans, putting down roots alongside baseball, apple pie, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Starbuck’s and (after a good case of the munchies) more apple pie.

Anyone up for a baseball game, apple pie, and a joint?  As for Amsterdam, I need to make another (but longer) visit.  Much research to do!


  • Kenny Smith, Cannabis: The American Sacrament at:

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