Updated: May 24
How a handful of activists and entrepreneurs transformed the Venice of the North into the cannabis capital of the world.
If there’s one city in all the world most associated with marijuana, it is undoubtedly Amsterdam. The very mention of the name immediately conjures to mind images of bustling bike lanes, shimmering canals, rows of glowing red lights, and yes, smoke-filled coffeeshops. For decades now, the city has been known for its liberal attitudes toward cannabis (and sex)…but it was not always this way. Like most other sociopolitical sea changes in the past century, the Dutch policy of cannabis tolerance—and the coffeeshop industry that sprang up around it—traces back to a handful of counterculture activists and visionaries in the late 1960s and early 70s who pushed back against the powers-that-be and paved the way for the thriving cannabis culture that followed. In the Netherlands, those activists were the Provos.
Like America’s Diggers and Yippies (who they helped inspire), the Provos (short for provoceren, the Dutch word meaning “to provoke”) were a radical activist group that combined non-violent political protest with absurd humor and guerilla street theater as a means to promote their liberal agenda and goad authorities into extreme reactions that would end up exposing their hypocrisy and embarrassing them in the media. The most prominent figure in the Provo movement was an anarchist performance artist by the name of Robert Jasper Grootveld.
Born in Amsterdam on July 19, 1932, “Jasper” (as he was known to his friends) had an anarchist for a father, who instilled in him a strong anti-authoritarian streak. A beatnik and a loner, he dropped out of school and worked a series of odd jobs before becoming a full-time activist. Grootveld’s life became a rebellion against the rigid, puritanical, and commercialized mindset of Dutch society of the time; starting in the early 1960s, he began staging a series of demonstrations known as “happenings” designed to mess with the man and deprogram the masses, whom he believed had been reduced to brainwashed consumers.
THE MARIHUETTE GAME
In 1962, Grootveld and his comrades launched a guerilla pro-pot disinformation campaign called the "Marihuettegame" (marijuana game), the rules of which they published in a manifesto entitled “Marihu #2.” The premise of the game was to score “points” by tricking police into trying to bust you. Participants would narc on themselves, but when police acted on the tip, instead of marijuana they’d only find what Grootveld called “marihu”—legal substances that bore a resemblance to marijuana, such as herbs, straw, wood shavings, etc. For example: If you got the cops to search your house, you’d earn 50 points; if you actually got arrested for the marihu, you got 100 points; a voluntary visit to the police station was worth 150 points, and so on. These points could then be redeemed for actual weed at the Afrikaanse Druk Stoor—an underground counterculture shop they operated out of his friend Fred Wessels’ house in the Jordaan.
The purpose of the Marihuettegame was to demonstrate the authorities’ ignorance about cannabis, get them to waste their time and resources on false alarms, and make them grow so weary of following up on bogus leads that they’d give up on chasing after pot smokers altogether. Apparently, their stratagem worked—as evidenced by the following anecdote by Grootveld published in the book Really Free Culture: Anarchist Communities, Radical Movements, and Public Practices:
"One day a whole group of us went by bus to Belgium. Of course, I had informed my friend Houweling [a police officer] that some elements might take some pot along. At the border, the cops and customs were waiting for us. Followed by the press, we were taken away for a thorough search. The poor cops…all they could find was dog food and some legal herbs. 'Marijuana is dog food,' joked the papers the next day. After that, the cops decided to refrain from hassling us in the future, afraid of more blunders."