Faces of Amsterdam – A Photo Essay of Coffeeshops & Their Patrons

Words by Annika Fremer and Photography by Maria Cavali

Sometimes a symbol of creativity and counter-culture, at other times shunned by society and incarcerated – the face of the cannabis smoker provokes many feelings. Photographer Maria Cavali takes us on an excursion to nine different coffeeshops where we come face to face with the people who frequent them.

As the cannabis capital of Europe, Amsterdam is well known for its tolerant attitude and open cannabis trade. The city has served as a safe haven away from the paranoia and secretiveness that cannabis smokers face in other places. The foundation of the Dutch cannabis politics dates back to the beginning of the 1970’s when the government decided to focus their energy on combating hard drugs while the cannabis industry, which was not seen as causing any problem, grew to be increasingly more open.

The spirit of tolerance is what makes Amsterdam so unique. It exists as a living example of what a city with a liberal approach to cannabis looks like, and it has proven to work quite well. The comfortable café environment surrounding the cannabis industry is truly special – the very face of Amsterdam. Interestingly, the liberal laws have not produced more smokers. In fact, the Netherlands has a lower average cannabis consumption than many other European countries. Amsterdam has set an example, showed that there is another way. And now cannabis liberal winds are blowing strong in many parts of the world. It almost seems like the war is over.

But something is happening in the cannabis capital. 54 coffeeshops are currently being closed due to new government legislation.As of 2016, Amsterdam closed 160 coffeeshops. Back in 1995 there was 350 of them. Among the coffeeshops that are closing are some of the most famous ones, including the Mellow Yellow – the first coffeeshop in Amsterdam. The systematic revoking of coffeeshop licenses is part of a government makeover plan for Amsterdam.

Tania, a.k.a Borboleta KordLaranja, artist and shopkeeper for a leading cannabis seed company, sees a clear negative development. “As the rest of the world is getting wiser and more open, here it’s getting worse. The tolerance we used to benefit from is slowly fading, this will only lead to increased unemployment and illegal drug traffic.”

There are many people for whom a coffeeshop is much more than a place to buy cannabis. For artist and political activist John Sinclair the coffeeshop 420 Café is also his office whenever he’s in town. An office that he soon will have to relocate. “It doesn’t make sense, it’s the result of religious fanaticism in the Dutch government. The tolerant attitude was what made Amsterdam different, and it was working so good. Now they don’t want to be different anymore.” Sinclair says.

Amsterdam has served as a place where the faces on these pictures are welcomed into the public space. In this way, the coffeeshop turns the outsider into an insider, with a place to call their own. The decision to further marginalize the cannabis industry instead of taking the next step towards legalization is a clear sign that the people in power don’t want Amsterdam to be associated with cannabis anymore. The process of gentrifying Amsterdam comes at a price. It may lead to the destruction of not only the face but the very soul of Amsterdam.

Also published on Medium.