VANCOUVER - It's known as the Amsterdam of North America, a mecca of cannabis culture that sparks more than curiosity for many visitors.
The pungent scent of marijuana drifts regularly in the air on the streets of "Vansterdam," and advocates say the West Coast city's permissive attitude toward pot draws visitors and their pocketbooks.
But while marijuana use may be tacitly ignored, police warn that possession remains illegal, so tourists looking to indulge in the pot scene still need to proceed with caution.
Ground Zero for ganja in Vancouver is the 300-block of West Hastings Street, which is home to the B.C. Marijuana Party headquarters and Vapour Lounge, Cannabis Culture Magazine, and the New Amsterdam Cafe.
"You don't have people selling or dealing in here. We don't do that," says Phil, an employee at the New Amsterdam. "But people can come here and experience it and if they bring their own stuff they can smoke it here."
The warehouse-style brick and concrete cafe-come-head shop offers vegetarian wraps and vaporizers, lattes and hand-blown glass bongs. Patrons even have the option of gift cards and reward points for purchases.
Next door is the headquarters of Cannabis Culture magazine and the B.C. Marijuana Party, a registered political party that offers tax receipts for donations and has run candidates in elections provincially and federally.
"Overgrowing the government," is their motto, and they appear to be giving it a pretty good go.
Elections BC recently approved an activist's initiative petition to decriminalize marijuana. The results are not binding on the provincial government, but the movement to repeal drug laws that prohibit the drug has become almost mainstream in B.C. It's even on the agenda at this year's gathering of municipal politicians, the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
The Herb Museum is located on the second floor of the party headquarters, and includes a history of marijuana, opium, coca, aphrodisiacs, hallucinogens and herbal medicines. A $5 fee for access to the full museum includes use of a Volcano vaporizer, or $2.50 gets visitors use of a pipe, bong or rolling papers only.
Several blocks down the street, the Vancouver Seed Bank and Tokers Lounge offer a dizzying array — literally — of seeds for the discerning pothead: Dr. Atomic's Northern Lights, Spicey Thai Sativa, Atomic Haze.
The city even has a tour company that offers so-called "green" tours, "guided by expert pot smoking professionals, with many years of specialized experience in the industry," according to the website for Vansterdam Tours, http://vansterdamgreentours.webs.com.
There's the Starter Tour, the Get Baked in B.C. tour, a Medicinal Tour that includes a visit to a doctor for a dispensary card, as well as a Legal Grow tour for those who have gone through the process of obtaining a permit to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes.
The proprietor, who only identifies herself as Kiwi Kush, says she had the idea while working at Cannabis Culture headquarters a few years ago.
"Tourists would come in all day long asking what the best things to do and see were," she says.
"I thought people coming up here to have fun and partake in smoking, both recreational and medicinal, should have options available to them, and be able to get first-hand knowledge from professional pot heads on everything Vansterdam related."
The company website is emphatic: "Vansterdam Tours does NOT sell marijuana, nor can we tell you where to get it." They have done as many as 15 tours a year for the past four years, for anywhere from one person to a dozen at a time. Bachelor parties are popular and several bands have arranged private tours.
"The most popular tour is the start tour, as it's two hours long and a crash course in all you need to know to get you started on your exploration of Vancouver pot culture," says Kiwi Kush.
She likes to take visitors on "high hikes" that combine Vancouver's renowned scenery and greenery, and in summer clothing-optional Wreck Beach is a popular stop.
And the annual 4-20 celebrations every April 20 draw thousands of pot smokers to the Vancouver art gallery to rally for decriminalization.
There is a persistent misconception from tourists "that it's fully legal and you can buy it anywhere, which is obviously not anywhere close to the truth," says Kiwi Kush.
In response to an epidemic of hard-core drug use and deaths, the Vancouver Police Department has embraced the city's "four pillars" approach to drugs: prevention, enforcement, harm reduction, and treatment. Drug traffickers are targets, but drug users generally are not.
But drug users — even pot smokers — can and will be arrested if their behaviour is a concern to police. At the very least, the illegal substances in their possession can be seized.
"It would be a mistake for people to think that they could come here and walk around and smoke illegal narcotics with impunity," says Const. Lindsey Houghton, a department spokesman.
Despite the permissive attitude, stores and cafes that for a brief time openly sold marijuana goods have disappeared.
Flaunting drug use will draw the attention of officers, and international visitors in particular should be aware that their activities could be reported to border officials even if charges are not laid.
"That might not go over so well," says Houghton.
Nor do tourism officials want the city to cash in on cannabis culture.
"This is not something that Vancouver’s tourism industry promotes," says an official with Tourism Vancouver.
If you go:
- Check out the B.C. Marijuana Party headquarters, at the heart of Vancouver's "pot block." The party has information on the city and the laws: http://bcmarijuanaparty.com/
- Know the law. The Vancouver Police Department Drug Policy is available online: http://vancouver.ca/police/assets/pdf/reports-policies/vpd-policy-drug.pdf