If you’ve ever been to the Cannabis Cup, odds are you’ve fantasized about someday moving to Amsterdam and working at a coffeeshop. To legally sell and smoke the world’s best weed every day seems almost too cool to be considered work. But behind every romanticized vision lies a somewhat sobering reality. This spring, I was granted unprecedented access at two of the city’s most popular shops to experience this reality firsthand. In this exclusive expose, I’ll take you behind all the smoke and mirrors to reveal what it’s really like to work in the Dutch coffeeshop industry.
I first met Sissi back in 1994, on my very first visit to Amsterdam for the Seventh Cannabis Cup. She ran the Quentin Hotel—the hip little place where the HT staff and celebrity judges used to stay every year—and was known to blaze with us in the lobby at many a 4:20 a.m. ceremony. It was also in that lobby, in 2000, that she met the owner of Barney’s (and her future husband) Derry. Soon after, she sold the hotel and opened her own coffeeshop—Amnesia. Located at Herengracht 133 just a few blocks from the Barney’s shops on Haarlemmerstraat, Amnesia is one of the city’s chillest, most stylish smoke spots. This is where I’d be spending most of my time this week, learning the ins and outs of the industry from her experienced staff.
I arrive at the shop around noon, and Sissi introduces me to the two employees on duty that day: Ashley, the 23-year-old barista from New Orleans, and buxom Brazilian dealer Raphaela. It’s their job to see to it that customers have a positive experience in the shop. For Ashley, this means serving up coffees, toasties, milkshakes, and the shop’s signature “Limonana” drink from behind the bar. For Raphaela, it means slinging the herb. (Amnesia, I learn, is actually one of the only shops in town to have female dealers.)
There are two shifts—a morning shift from 9 to 5, and a night shift from 5 until closing (coffeeshops are required by law to close at 1 a.m.). All of the staff share certain duties, like mopping up, cleaning out the pipes and bongs, helping customers to operate the Volcanos, and serving as the shop’s de facto bouncers. “If someone comes in on hard drugs and I can see it, is using tobacco or alcohol, or is disturbing our customers, I have to be able to deal with it and make them leave,” Raphaela tells me.
Being a dealer at a coffeeshop is very different from being a dealer back in the States. Dealers here work standard eight-hour shifts and earn a salary of about 10 euros an hour (plus tips) regardless of how much they sell. Legally, they’re not permitted to sell more than five grams to a person per day. In addition, the dealers are expected to “become the menu,” as Sissi puts it—that is, to have an intimate knowledge of every strain in the shop: their genetics, where and how they were grown, and what type of high they provide. This also means being a good salesperson—not only pushing the most popular strains, but the ones that aren’t moving as well. Dealers aren’t usually allowed to smoke on the job, but they are encouraged to light up after their shifts.
“There are probably dealers that don’t smoke,” says Raphaela, “but I think they should because you have to know what you’re talking about.”
After getting the 411 on general shop procedure, it’s time for me to get hands-on and learn how to work the counter. Raphaela stands over my shoulder and begins showing me the ropes: Sativas are kept in the left drawer, indicas and crosses in the right, hashes down below. As for the register, they have a simple yet sophisticated computer system that precisely monitors all of the revenue and inventory. Making a sale is as easy as punching the key for that strain, putting the proper amount onto the scale, and hitting “OK.” Raphaela oversees as I prepare a few grams of Top Dawg for a guy from Virginia, who, she informs me, is a regular customer. This entitles him to a 10 percent discount (staff gets 20 percent)—and, of course, every sale comes with free rolling papers, tips, or a lighter.
According to Raphaela, the shop sells on average about 300 to 400 grams a day. Since they’re allowed to have only 500 grams on the premises, they must continually replenish their inventory throughout the day. But while it’s legal for them to sell marijuana, it’s technically illegal for them to grow or purchase it. So where does all the weed come from? From an underground network of deliverymen called “runners.”
ON THE RUN
Runners are the unsung heroes of the coffeeshop industry—noble outlaws operating in the shadows, responsible for supplying the shops with all of the weed they need. They work eight-hour shifts, five days a week. They typically make from two to six runs daily, with each run taking about 15 to 20 minutes. Each day, dealers periodically place orders for whichever strains are running low. Strains can be ordered in 15- or 25-gram bags, hashes in 10-gram bags, and joints in bundles of five, ten, or 15. Runners must be on call at all times, and whether a shop needs 15 grams or 150 grams when they get the call, they have to go.
Sure enough, it isn’t long before Raphaela has to place an order. I hurry out and rent a bike, and make it back just in time to catch the runner on duty—”Morcego” (a code name)—before he leaves. Morcego works for one of the clandestine companies that provide this service for various coffeeshops. After explaining to him who I am and why I’m here, I convince him to let me accompany him on his rounds. We head back to his “runhouse”—his secret workspace on the outskirts of town. It’s a small, stinky attic room in a residential area that’s packed with various scales, devices, supplies, and several bags of weed and hash. Here, he allows me to interview him and observe him at work.
First off, he tears open a bag of the strain LSD (a.k.a. Lucy) and begins weighing out 15-gram increments (taking care not to break any big nugs), which he then vacuum-seals, labels and puts into a large plastic container to await delivery.
Next, he takes all of the shake that's left over and scrapes it into a bowl to make joints and reefers (joints have tobacco in them, reefers are pure marijuana). Morcego rolls so many joints that he literally has calluses on his thumbs and forefingers. To avoid this, he’s now using a Mountain High hexagonal Styrofoam multiple joint-making machine. He just inserts pre-rolled cone papers into the 60 slots; then he pours the weed onto the top and shakes it until all of it falls into the holes and fills the cones. With a quick turn of the top, the joints all pop up and he begins pulling them out, tapping them to pack them tighter, twisting them closed, inserting them into plastic tubes, and capping them.
“Joints are color-coded by cap,” he explains, with each color representing a different strain or mixture of weed and tobacco. “Now we make a joint for us,” he says smiling, gathering up the remaining powder and rolling a fat cone. Unlike dealers, runners are allowed to smoke on the job as long as they don’t neglect their duties, and they’re also allowed to keep small amounts of shake and kif.
When the joint making is done, it’s on to the hash. Morcego pulls out a few small, tan bricks of Tibisla and, with a large knife, begins slicing them into 10-gram chunks. These too are vacuum-sealed and labeled. Afterward, he scrapes the knife and slides the scrapings into a huge tub of tobacco.
“I like to put this into the House Mix joints,” he snickers. “Sometimes people complain, ‘Damn—it’s too strong!’ But hey—we put the good shit in.”
We’re just finishing our joint when his phone rings: It’s Amnesia again—they already need to restock on Utopia Haze and Shiraz. Twenty minutes later, we’re back at the shop with the order. I thank Morcego for his time and trust and bid him goodbye as he heads off on his next run, and I head back behind the counter to process the order with Raphaela.
Whenever an order comes in, it must be added to the stock. She does this by zeroing out the current stock on the scale, adding the contents of the new bag, then hitting “add to inventory.” She then prints out a receipt of the entire transaction and gives a copy to the runner for his records. This meticulous balancing-out of the inventory happens after each delivery, and at the beginning and end of every shift. If the total stock ever goes over 500 grams, Raphaela has to give some back to the runner. It’s imperative that the amount of inventory in the shop always matches up with what’s in the computer and that no overages or items are unaccounted for, just in case the Tax Control shows up.
At least once a year, tax agents—accompanied by up to 10 undercover police officers—make an unannounced visit to the shop for a surprise audit. They lock the doors, not allowing anyone to enter or leave, and begin checking everything. They take a full inventory of the stock—not only cannabis and hashish, but food and coffee as well—weighing it all out and making sure it exactly matches the shop’s accounting. Being off by even a small amount can carry fines, and in serious cases can result in a suspension or permanent closing of the shop.
When an audit like this occurs, the person in charge of dealing with it is the beheerder. A beheerder is an employee who’s been registered and certified by the government to be an official administrator of the shop, qualified to answer any and all questions regarding the business. Shops are required to have at least one beheerder on duty at all times—this shift, that person is Raphaela.
“When Control comes, they bring dogs to search for hard drugs or hidden extra weed, so they’re very tight,” she says. “They check every little space … but we’ve always been on regulation.”
By the end of my shift, I’ve learned more about how a coffeeshop works than I have in all my previous 15 visits to Amsterdam combined. Little did I realize that this was just the tip of the iceberg ….
When I report for duty the next day, I’m introduced to “Monty”—one of the company’s head runners and an old-school veteran of the trade. He was very suspicious of me at first, but after talking with him for an hour or so, I began to earn his trust, and eventually persuaded him to take me back to his workspace—a.k.a. the “storehouse.”
Monty leads me along a zigzag of straats, grachts, and alleys to an unmarked door, which opens into a dark, musty storage room. All the way in the back corner, past an obstacle course of dusty old junk, there’s a small door marked “Bestolan” (private). “There’s only about six people in the world who know about this room,” Monty says nervously as he turns the key. “And that’s about five too many, I’d say.”
Inside is basically a large closet. On one side, there’s a small desk area with the same tools I’d seen at Morcego’s; on the other, there are cardboard boxes filled with weed. It’s no wonder that Monty was apprehensive about bringing me here: Whereas Morcego’s room contained only about two or three days' worth of stock, this room has considerably more. Working at High Times, I’ve seen some large amounts of weed before, but never anything like this. “All the glamour, eh?” Monty jokes. I was obviously taken aback, which seemed to amuse him.
“In the beginning, you’re like ‘Oh wow!’” he says. “But after a little while, it just becomes normal, it’s nothing. I don’t know what would impress me anymore.”
As a head runner, Monty deals with much bigger transactions and quantities than the standard runner and has far more responsibility. Despite his love for marijuana, he admits that most of the time, he finds his job neither fun nor exciting. He can spend up to 15 or 16 hours a day alone in this tiny room, with no companionship save a quietly playing radio and the pungent piles of green and brown around him.
“It’s a very lonely job—you’re on your own, you’ve got no support, you can’t allow anyone to know what you’re doing. Your life becomes nothing but bicycles, bags, and telephones,” he says.
Like a CIA agent, Monty’s forced to lie about what he does for a living—even to his close friends. I can see that he doesn’t get to talk about his employment very often, because now that he can, the floodgates open. Within minutes, his previous paranoia gives way to an almost childlike enthusiasm, and like a sinner at confession, he begins telling me every little detail of the job.
“First, I pick up a bag from an approved grower and bring it back here to check it over for quality. Derry is very demanding, and if quality is below par, it gets rejected immediately.”
Like Morcego, he then has to break down the sacks into smaller bags—only with such large amounts, that takes quite a bit longer.
“See this?” he says, opening a large sack marked “NYCD” and weighing out a 15-gram bag. “Imagine doing this again and again and again for all of these.
“Smell is your big worry here,” he cautions, pointing to the exhaust fan whirring away overhead.
He begins pulling out bag after bag of hashish, explaining each one’s origin and comparing the various stamps and markings. “This is Malana, all the way from India. See the shape of the shoe? How do you think that got into the country? And these here, they’re Moroccan—Caramello. And this one is Iceolator powder, made right here in Amsterdam.”
We’re only at the storehouse for half an hour or so when Monty’s phone rings. It’s his other runner, “Curly”—he needs to restock his runhouse for the week. Ten minutes later, Curly arrives with a large rucksack and an inventory list. To my surprise, he’s an American in his early twenties, so naturally I’m curious as to how he ended up with this position.
“The hardest part for me was getting over here and finding a place to live,” Curly says. “After that, it was just by chance that I was offered this job.”
Perhaps it’s because of his youth and inexperience, but unlike Monty, Curly has no mixed feelings about what he does. “I love my job,” he tells me. “It’s a dream job—absolutely. I get up in the morning and I want to do it. It’s a great feeling, actually working for something that you believe in.”
“He needs a bit of everything,” Monty announces after reviewing the shopping list. It’s time for me to get my hands dirty, as Monty sets me to work putting the order together. Ten bags of Crimea Blue … 10 bags of Hawaiian Snow … 10 bags of Blue Cheese … six bags of Red Dragon … four bags of Amnesia Haze … one Nepalese Temple Ball ….
Before long, Curly’s backpack is completely stuffed. “We’ll have to do it in two runs,” Monty decides. “We couldn’t possibly do the whole stock at one time—it’s too big and bulky.”
“If you just have this bag,” Curly explains, holding up the pack, “you could be going camping or be a tourist. But if you have a ‘body bag,’ then you’re drawing attention—and that’s when you start getting paranoid.”
And sometimes, the guys tell me, that paranoia can become overwhelming. “You start to feel like you’re always being watched, followed,” says Monty. “We [runners] say, if we get nervous, tell each other—be honest. Say, ‘I can’t do it today—I need a break.’ We had one runner that got too paranoid and never told us, and it manifested. We had to suspend him.”
Surely that paranoia is understandable: According to Dutch law, a person is only allowed to possess five grams of cannabis. Because a runner’s duties require him to transport many times that amount, they take tremendous risks every day and subsequently are forced to take serious precautions to avoid detection. Like undercover agents, they employ code names, disguises, and special phones used only for orders to avoid being traced. They change their clothes several times a day, spray themselves with colognes, vary their routes on each run, and avoid writing down any names—preferring numerical coding to designate an order’s origin and destination. Of course, the local authorities aren’t fools; they know the coffeeshops are getting their weed from somewhere. But since the shops comprise such a huge part of the city’s economy, they tend to turn a blind eye, for the most part. Nevertheless, the police can arrest a runner any time they want.
So how scared are they of getting busted? “I just cycle normally and be cool,” Morcego told me. “This city is too crazy for cops to come after us. There are too many labs for Ecstasy, coke, other crazy shit; that matters more to them. I’ve been stopped, but I just show my ID and it’s no problem. If somebody busts me, I’d say I bought it on the street in the red-light district.”
But Monty isn’t quite as nonchalant about encounters with the Politie. “Try explaining to an officer why you’ve got 20 different kinds of weed, all labeled, with your handwriting and fingerprints on it. Plus if they catch you on a run, they’ll probably search your house and find more. That’s why we keep no more than three days' worth at the runhouses—any more than that and the penalties go up.”
Actually, they seem less worried about getting busted than they are about being robbed. If a runner gets robbed, he could lose several days’ worth of inventory—and, obviously, he can’t go to the police for help.
“In our heart of hearts, we don’t think we’re doing anything wrong,” Monty opines. “We’re not dealers—there’s no money changing hands. We’re just deliverymen, doing a job for an hourly rate. But, of course, we can’t say that in court.”
Let’s hope they never have to. These brave blokes are the backbone of the coffeeshop business—without them, the city’s entire tourism industry would go up in smoke.
After experiencing a day in the life of both a dealer and a runner, I was eager for a taste of the big time. I sat down with Derry for some one-on-one time in his office at Barney’s Uptown, hoping to hear about the glamorous life of being a marijuana mogul. Or so I thought … what I learned was that owning a coffeeshop is a rather tricky and stressful business.
“You don’t know from one day to another whether you’re going to be open or not,” Derry tells me. “There are so many strict laws that are so easy to break … it’s like walking a tightrope.”
Contrary to public perception, cannabis is not legal in Holland—it’s merely tolerated (a policy instituted in 1980 called gedoogbeleid). Back in 1995, the Dutch government issued close to 700 coffeeshop licenses to just about anybody who applied for one. These licenses basically allow the bearer to possess up to 500 grams of cannabis, and to sell no more than five grams of it per person per day to anybody over 18 years of age. But the licenses also require that you maintain a clean environment and meticulous records and strictly enforce the rules—and the rules are constantly changing.
In April 2007, the Netherlands passed a law prohibiting alcohol from being served in the coffeeshops. As of July 2008, no tobacco is allowed either—a policy that alienated their European clientele, who prefer their joints mixed. This led some shops to create enclosed smoking areas, while others simply offer alternative herbal “smoking blends” to mix with the weed. There’s another law that was passed in 2008 stating that shops cannot be within 250 meters of a secondary school (i.e., a school that has students from 12 to 18 years of age). Out in Utrecht, still another law was passed prohibiting shops from being closer than 250 meters from each other—a law that many fear may someday make its way to Amsterdam. Of the original 700-plus coffeeshops, there are now only about 200 left, and 70 or 80 more shops are expected to permanently close their doors by January 1, 2012. And thanks to the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the center-right party recently elected to power, the number of shops will likely continue to shrink.
“They’re not finished yet—they’re still looking for more criteria to close coffeeshops down,” Derry says. “There will never come a point when there will be less pressure on us; it’s always going to be oppression.”
But the industry isn’t taking this lying down. Derry and Sissi, along with Arjan of the Green House and several other prominent shop owners, are part of a union called the BCD that lobbies on behalf of Amsterdam’s cannabis retailers. Much like dispensary owners in California, they point to the taxes they pay (around 25 percent of the price of every bud sold) as proof of their value to the nation’s economy.
“There’s no VAT [the EU’s version of the sales tax] on marijuana because it’s technically an illegal substance,” Derry explains, “but we pay income tax on the money we declare.” Facing audits and accusations of money laundering, some shops (including Amnesia and Barney’s) are now calling for their tax records to be made public.
“The tax office is very interested in coffeeshops and what they do. They want your money, but they come at you from a point of total suspicion, because they don’t see you as a business owner—they see you as a drug dealer. That’s their training.”
In spite of all the daunting legal and financial challenges that their chosen profession entails, Derry and his colleagues wouldn’t trade it for all the tulips in Holland.
“The most rewarding thing for me is seeing the environment we’ve created,” Derry says. “To run a successful coffeeshop and do it right, you have to really love cannabis. If you don’t smoke, you won’t really get it. It’s a pleasure for me to come to work every day and watch all my staff and clients be so happy. This is the real satisfaction.”
Of course, winning 32 Cannabis Cup awards can be pretty satisfying, too. Both Derry and Sissi look forward to the Cup each year with great excitement, beginning their preparations for the event as early as spring. According to Barney’s manager James, in the two weeks before the Cup, the major shops are filled with an eerie quiet. Most of the owners and main staff are behind the scenes—fine-tuning their final preparations and resting up for the coming storm.
“Generally speaking, the busiest time of year is the summer,” Derry says. “But compared to the Cannabis Cup, it’s nothing. Every year, from three days before until three days after, it’s nonstop, 24 hours. It’s incredibly intense.” For most of the week, staffs have to work overtime—in some cases, even double shifts. Runners make a minimum of eight to 10 trips a day, and dealers dole out bags faster than they can order them. So when you’re at the Cup this November and you’re ordering that cup of coffee or nug of Utopia Haze, remember to be patient, be generous, and be thankful for all the hard work that goes into making Amsterdam the stoniest city on earth.
So … is it possible for you to own a coffeeshop? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Not only is it impossible to obtain a new license, but the existing licenses are non-transferable to anyone but an immediate family member.
So much for owning one … but what are your chances of working at one? Realistically, not great. The Netherlands makes it extremely difficult to work here if you’re not a legal resident. Dutch law states that non-Europeans can only get a job if there are no qualified EU citizens available, so learning to speak some Dutch may help. It’s fairly easy to get a student-resident permit, but students aren’t allowed to work. So how did the girls at Amnesia do it? Well, Raphaela’s father is Swiss, and his EU citizenship made it easier for her to become a legal resident. But what about Ashley, our barista from the Big Easy?
“My boyfriend is Dutch,” she says, “and he sponsored me.”
That’s right, folks—your best bet is to hook up with a Dutch citizen who’s willing to sponsor you. But a sponsor must make an income sufficient to support you and has to file paperwork stating that you’ll be their financial responsibility, so good luck with that.
When it comes to being a runner, you’ve got a much better shot. Runners work off the books and get paid in cash, so they don’t have to be legal residents or have work visas. But you’ll have to find a shop owner willing to trust you with their inventory, and you’ll be compounding your illegal resident status with criminal activity.
However you slice it, it’ll take a lot of determination—and even more luck—for you to score a job in the cannabis capital of the world. But if your mind is truly made up, there is some good news: Barney’s is hiring.
Article originally published in the October 2009 issue of High Times magazine.