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AMSTERDAM -- It takes about a five-minute walk after arriving at Central Station to realize you've landed on Fantasy Island. Working girls beckon from bay windows, shops boast an eye-opening amount of pornography and the tangy smell of marijuana wafts out every time a coffee shop door is opened.
It's one small part of one city, but Amsterdam has become a flashpoint for the marijuana debate.
It is a city where people can wander into cafes and buy small amounts of cannabis without fear of arrest. Some say this country has the most effective drug policy in the world.
"In Holland, we believe you can do what you want as long as you don't bother anyone else," said Wernard Bruining, one of the first to have a coffee shop licensed to sell pot. Back in 1972, the founder of the Mellow Yellow had no idea he was part of a revolution.
"Marijuana won't go away," Bruining said. "I think that one day all of Europe will be like Holland."
In the Netherlands, marijuana is not legal, although it would be hard to tell after walking by many of the 300-odd Amsterdam coffee shops which sell pot.
Grass is treated separately from hard drugs and is "de-penalized" in a national tolerance policy allowing people to carry 30 grams or less. The coffee shops sell no more than five grams at a time.
The latest UN study on drug trends shows The Netherlands wouldn't even crack the top 50 in marijuana consumption. The annual percentage of Dutch people older than 15 who smoke pot is 4.1%.
By comparison, 8.9% of Canadians do.
"Marijuana is just no big deal here," said Henk Lokhorst, who lives just outside Amsterdam.
"In Canada, there is still that allure, that idea of a forbidden fruit. The Dutch don't have these coffee shops because they want to smoke pot. They have them for two reasons: one, the system seems to work and two, people are making a lot of money."
The coffee shops are busiest on weekend evenings, when the young from all over the world gather to smoke.
Stacy and Lynn are 18 years old and from Ontario. They'd rather their mother not know what they were up to on vacation.
"You get a strange feeling when you walk into a coffee shop in Amsterdam," said Stacy in the Green House, a famed coffee house.
"You're intimidated. For a moment you think you're doing something dirty. And then it goes away and soon it's just part of the culture. You look around and I guarantee you will think 'What is wrong with this? Why does this upset so many people?' "
The girls spend 15 euros -- about $25 Cdn -- on some Maui Mist and are set for the night.
Coffee-shop owners estimate that for every dollar tourists pay for marijuana, they'll spend 10 times that amount on food and lodging.
The goal of the country's drug policy was to distinguish marijuana from hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine and amphetamines.
The coffee shops can only sell to people over 18, are rarely licensed to sell alcohol, can't advertise and can never sell hard drugs.
At the Green House, on the menu is a brand called AK-47. Its tetrahydrocannabinol level -- THC is the ingredient that makes people high - -- is 18% to 22%, or about three times higher than average Canadian pot.
"I wanted the strongest stuff they had," American Eddie Ponika said. "I'm an experienced hitter and this stuff nearly knocked me out. Wow! I'd like to take this home."
"The growing of stronger and different varieties of marijuana was the base in the plan for keeping a lot of people from using hard drugs," Green House proprietor Arjan said. "The lack of good cannabis is the start for some people to use hard drugs."
Popular coffee shops can make more than $1.5-million Cdn a year.
A study by the Ministry of Health in the Netherlands comparing drug use between its country and the U.S. shows 10.5% of Americans have used cocaine at some point in their lives, which is five times more than in the Netherlands.
Among 13 member states of the European Union, the Netherlands ranks eleventh in terms of hard-drug addicts.
"The vast majority of Dutch cannabis users do not try hard drugs," said Dirk J. Korf of the University of Amsterdam.
The system does have its opponents. A new coalition government is led by the Christian Democratic Appeal, a conservative party. The coalition wants to shut down half of the 800 coffee shops in The Netherlands.
"It would be a sweet thing if we could eventually retract decriminalization," Piet-Hein Donner, acting Dutch justice minister.
But he admitted the government is stuck with a political reality and thought it best to give priority to other forms of crime.
Annual prevalence of use as percentage of the population aged 15 and above.
Ireland 9.4% UK 9.4 France 7.4 Switzerland 7.0 Spain 7.0 Germany 6.0 Denmark 4.4 Netherlands 4.1 Luxembourg 4.0 South Africa 18.4 New Zealand 18.0 Australia 17.9 CANADA 8.9 USA 8.3