Museums: Still-smoking remains of the hemp industry: Tony Kelly visits Amsterdam's cannabis exhibition

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The Independent Culture
SOME PEOPLE visit Amsterdam for its museums; others go for the drugs. Now you can have both under one roof.

The world's first cannabis museum is to be found in a canalside house close to Dam Square, at the edge of Amsterdam's red-light district. Its aim is to spread information about the hemp plant and its alleged environmental, medical and social benefits.

A street away, the smell of cannabis drifts out of cafes and permeates the air; yet the museum itself seems surprisingly respectable, almost clinical, with neat display cabinets and educational videos like any other. Only the appearance of the woman at the ticket desk, in tight leather trousers with a shock of pink hair, hints at anything unconventional.

Cannabis has a long and varied history. As early as 8000BC hemp was grown in Europe and Asia for its fibre. It is mentioned in a Chinese medical text of 3727BC and was used by Hindu mystics 3,000 years ago. Gautama Buddha is said to have survived by eating hempseed and the museum claims the support of other religious leaders. Mohammed forbade alcohol but allowed his followers to smoke; Jesus is mentioned because he told his disciples that 'what goes into the mouth defileth not a man - what comes out of the mouth defileth a man.'

Until the 19th century, most paper was made from hemp - the museum contains an 1836 Dutch bible - and the US Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. Much is made of the plant's role in American history: at one stage hemp was used as money and cannabis was served at the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Legalisation campaigners in the US recently stamped the slogan 'I Grew Cannabis' beside pictures of George Washington on dollar bills - an embarrassing reminder to today's anti-drug regime of their constitutional roots.

There are also claims that, on this side of the Atlantic, Queen Victoria was treated with cannabis by her physician. And a recent court case has highlighted the increasing illegal use of the drug in Britain to alleviate the pain caused by a number of serious illnesses, most notably multiple sclerosis.

The English word 'canvas' derives from 'cannabis' via the Dutch, who relied on the fibre for sails and nets during their maritime golden age. The US Navy urged farmers to grow hemp during World War II, even though it was officially banned. It is the use of the plant for everything from shirts (on sale at pounds 25 each) to paintbrushes and Christmas decorations, that the museum uses to advance its extravagant claims for hemp as 'the solution to our economic and ecological crisis'.

Growing hemp, they say, prevents soil erosion, reverses the greenhouse effect, saves forests and needs no pesticides. If the plant is so valuable, their argument goes, then why not benefit from the pleasant social side effects too?

The diversity of hemp products on display is fascinating. There is hair conditioner made of hempseed oil; cannabis beer ('double the fun') brewed in the US; a German pipe made of hemp bark - one of a collection of hash pipes from India, Morocco, Peru and elsewhere.

Contrary to popular belief, cannabis is not legal in Holland. Since 1976 it has been 'tolerated' in small amounts and certain cafes are allowed to sell it, provided they avoid harder drugs. These cafes cannot advertise but you see them off Dam Square, with pot plants in the windows and names like 'Cafe Jamaica'.

Inside, the list of prices is displayed on a blackboard or on a typed menu on the table. Complete legalisation would infuriate the Calvinist lobby and create a political storm, but the police and the population, endlessly tolerant, turn a collective blind eye. For anyone who cannot find the right cafes the museum sells the 'Mellow Pages - A Smoker's Guide To Holland'.

Toleration would also be a good word to describe the attitude of the city authorities to the Hash Information Museum since it opened six years ago. At first it received frequent police visits and at one stage was closed down, only to reopen a few days later, benefiting from the rash of publicity.

Since then, the museum has gradually become a familiar part of Amsterdam's underground scene, operating - like so much of the city's drugs and sex industries - in the grey areas on the margins of public acceptability.

'Relations with the police are generally friendly these days,' a museum worker told me. 'They come in and have a look around every now and then - mainly to show junior officers around - but they never take anything away.'

There is a glasshouse display on cultivation techniques and seeds are on sale in the Cannabis Connoisseurs Club shop next door, behind a shopfront advertising 'hi-tech hydroculture and home-growing equipment'.

With its test tubes and solar-powered machinery, the shop feels more like a school laboratory than a place to buy illicit substances; its clinical nature was enough to remove any frisson of excitement which I might have expected to feel at the prospect of being offered drugs. I can't help feeling that, if cannabis is ever available in Boots, people will find that half the fun has gone out of smoking it.

The museum receives few Dutch visitors - the Dutch tend to have a laissez faire attitude to cannabis and its very acceptance means that, as a subject, it carries little fascination for most people.

All of the captions are in English, confirming that the museum's chief appeal is to foreign tourists - yet it is illegal for these same tourists to buy seeds and export them to Britain or the US.

Amsterdam is the sort of city able to absorb such contradictions; British customs officers cannot. The only sensible policy would seem to be 'when in Rome . . .'; in other words, enjoy it while you're there.

If cannabis is not, so to speak, your cup of tea, then a few streets away there is a sex museum. But that is another story . . . .

The Hash Information Museum is at Oude Zijds Achterburgwal, Amsterdam.

(Photograph omitted)