Amsterdam for tourists: What's legal?

NETHERLANDS: You may have noticed an interesting reaction when you tell people you’re traveling to Amsterdam. They sometimes get that curious look, that knowing half-smile on their faces. “Amsterdam,” they say with a mischievous grin, “lucky you!”

Are they thinking about Van Gogh and Rembrandt, about the fabulous museums, the flowing canals, the teeming bicycle paths, the gorgeous tulips — or is it something else?

To many, Amsterdam is synonymous with freedom. With the ability to do what is forbidden in other places.

Throwback lodging: Stay in another era

Undoubtedly, millions travel to the Netherlands to see the just re-opened Rijksmuseum and its famous “Night Watch” painting, along with many other attractions of this truly charming city. But, let’s face it, Amsterdam conjures another fascination. Decades before anyone else considered legalizing marijuana, prostitution or gay marriage, the Dutch stood — as they still do today — at the forefront of change on many controversial social issues, legalizing or tolerating a range of activities that other countries placed squarely outside what they consider legally and socially acceptable.

That is not to say other countries did not have recreational drugs, homosexuality and prostitution. But the Dutch, with their history of practicality and compromise, decided to deal with these matters in a pragmatic way. In the process, they created a whole new world for tourists craving tolerance and a brush with the forbidden.

Amsterdam remains a magnet for travelers who find the idea of smoking marijuana in public — perhaps in front of a passing cop to add to the experience — simply irresistible.

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