All three images are exaggerated, but the Amsterdam coffeehouses in particular are a cliché. They're not quite the models for the legalization movement in the U.S., because in the Netherlands, drugs aren't legal.
The Dutch divide recreational drugs into categories, "soft" and "hard," and since 1976 police have not bothered to prosecute soft-drug offenses.
Decades of trial and error have led to the fairly unique Dutch balance between irritation and tolerance that allows café owners to put hashish and pot brownies on the menu as long as they abstain from selling booze.
But cannabis cafés aren't automatic when you loosen your drug laws. They haven't sprung up in Portugal, for example, where drugs were decriminalized in 2001.
The idea in Portugal was to minimize addiction and control street crime, and the policies have worked, overall. But they weren't just a mindless exercise in letting people do as they please. Decriminalizing private drug use has channeled Portuguese tax money toward healthy and productive public ends, like rehabilitating addicts, rather than a hopeless American-style drug war.
So a café owner selling pot openly in Lisbon would be shut down. Portuguese leaders from the outset wanted to avoid turning their country into a drug-tourism hotspot, and they've succeeded.
For Californians in the legalize-pot movement, though, drug tourism was part of the point. "Amsterdam is like our model city," Richard Lee, the medical-marijuana mogul who sponsored Prop. 19, told NPR last year. "When I go there, I see tourists and jobs and taxes being created from the cannabis industry, and I think we can do that here."
A Humboldt County activist, Anna Hamilton, was widely quoted after telling the local paper, "We have to embrace marijuana tourism, marijuana products and services — and marijuana has to become a part of the Humboldt County brand." As if it weren't already.
If revenue is the idea, then cannabis cafés make sense. The Dutch government earns hundreds of millions in annual tax revenue from its coffee shops — though not from private pot sales, since technically pot is illegal.
And it seems the notion of legalizing marijuana to boost the state's tax income was a huge attraction for Californians in 2010. "The top reason given for voting yes on the measure, in an open-ended question, is that it would have allowed for the taxation of marijuana (29 percent)," wrote The Weed Blog late last year, citing a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. That pot is a homegrown product also helps.
However, it's worth pointing out that Amsterdam's pot cafés aren't popular with a lot of Dutch people. Drug tourism overall, in fact, is about as popular with locals in Europe as Mardi Gras is with locals in New Orleans. Some indulge, but a lot of them can't stand it.
The current, conservative Dutch government is trying to curb drug tourism by prohibiting sales of even soft drugs to people with foreign passports. "No tourist attractions. We don't like that," said the Dutch Minister of Security and Justice, Ivo Opstelten, to a Dutch broadcaster last November. "The heart of the problem is crime and disturbances surrounding the sale. We have to go back to what it was meant for: local use for those who would like it."
I happen to think anyone should smoke pot if they want to. Hemp should also be used for everything from paper to handbags and taxed accordingly. But liberal drug policies can be shaped for any purpose, and right now the movement in the United States is mercenary enough to focus on the dream of new sin-tax dollars. Europe's famous laws were forged for other reasons.