Anything goes: five things you can do in Amsterdam that are illegal here

Amsterdam's well-monitored red-light district is one of the safest places for both customers and sex workers in the city.
Amsterdam's well-monitored red-light district is one of the safest places for both customers and sex workers in the city. Photo: AFP

Amsterdam satisfies the need for weed and other liberal pursuits.

Any traveller who's spent at least a day in Amsterdam will tell you the Netherlands' liberal set of policies regarding everything from sex to drugs makes Australia look like a nanny state.

While some of the things travellers encounter in Amsterdam might be morally questionable for some, others seem sensible, begging the question: what could we learn from the Dutch, and would their way of life work here?

For better and for worse, below are five things you can do in Amsterdam that you most certainly cannot do in Australia – at least not legally.

Despite threats of a government crackdown, the Amsterdam coffee-shop scene remains robust.
Despite threats of a government crackdown, the Amsterdam coffee-shop scene remains robust. Photo: AP

1. Burn one down

While Melbourne and Sydney bicker over their respective cafe scenes, Amsterdam offers a different kind of coffee-shop experience. Amsterdam has always been the place to go to smoke weed without consequence, thanks to its soft drug policy.

The scene is fairly playful: tourists can graduate from the Cannabis College (a surprisingly informative information centre) and in November each year become a judge in the annual Cannabis Cup, crowning the city's best coffee shop.

In Amsterdam you can cycle through the famous Rijksmuseum (and on the streets) without wearing a helmet.
In Amsterdam you can cycle through the famous Rijksmuseum (and on the streets) without wearing a helmet. Photo: Getty Images

In the past few years a revolving door of governments has threatened to restrict coffee shops in response to the issues caused by drug tourists (from Germany, Belgium and France) in Dutch border towns. However, despite the threats the Amsterdam coffee-shop scene remains robust, with a number of tourists visiting Amsterdam solely to smoke a joint.

While the Netherlands' soft drug policy might not fly in Australia (and indeed, might simply not work in a different culture), its curious impact has been that cannabis use among Dutch citizens is considered modest compared with other European nations where it is illegal; food for thought for lawmakers in Australia.

2. Ride a bike through a museum ... without wearing a helmet

While riding a bicycle through a museum might sound like a lark, it's an everyday occurrence for the cyclists of Amsterdam. When the curators of the Rijksmuseum proposed closing a decades-old bike path through the centre of the museum as part of a recent renovation, the community demanded their favourite shortcut to the city centre be preserved ... and they won. It was an impressive showing of people power, and a reflection of Dutch attitudes to biking.

Not only can you ride a bike through a museum, you can do so without wearing a helmet (an act that will land you a fine of $145 or more in Australia), and most importantly, you can ride a bike in relative safety.

Even though it does not enforce the use of helmets, the Netherlands is one of the safest places in the world to ride. This comes down to two things: the government providing an extensive biking infrastructure, and the attitude of its people towards cyclists on the road.

When it comes to bikes, perhaps the Australian government (not to mention motorists) could pay a little more attention to the Dutch and make the roads a safer place.

3. Have a same-sex marriage

The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage, an initiative that became law in April 2001. (As an added bonus, all couples can marry for free at the local council chambers on an allocated day.)

At least one person has to be a Dutch citizen, however, to legally marry here, so Aussies wanting to seal their same-sex vows might want to hop over the pond to New Zealand before considering Amsterdam for their destination wedding.

While the ACT looks set to become the first Australian jurisdiction to allow same-sex couples equal marriage rights, the newly elected Abbott government has declared it will oppose such laws in the High Court.

Beyond wedding vows, the Netherlands is one of the few places in the world where LGBT couples can adopt. At present, LGBT couples can adopt in Western Australia, the ACT, NSW and most recently Tasmania, but not in Queensland, South Australia, Victoria or the Northern Territory. It's an issue of equality and justice, something not offered to all in Australia.

4. Drink at age 16 (but not for much longer)

While thousands of Australian teenagers wait meekly at home for their 18th birthdays to roll around, their 16-year-old contemporaries in Holland can stroll down the aisles at the local supermarket and pick up their choice of beer, wine and spirits with an alcohol content under 15 per cent ... graduating to stronger spirits once they hit 18.

Or at least they can until January 1, when the law will change and the sale of alcohol to people under the age of 18 will be prohibited – a fairly solid initiative given that binge drinking among young people, as in Australia, is on the rise in Holland.

5. Purchase sex from a shop window

The world's oldest profession is fairly mainstream in the Netherlands. The fluorescent-lit, fishbowl-like red light windows might be confronting for some tourists, but with the exception of the occasional pickpocket taking advantage of distracted wide-eyed wanderers, most agree Amsterdam's well-monitored red-light district is one of the safest places for both customers and sex workers in the city.

Or is it? There are many grey areas in the red-light district, with concerns about human trafficking, organised crime and hard drugs used as a strong argument against its existence. The city, however, has taken an aggressive approach to these concerns, establishing an ambitious program called Project 1012. Under the plan, new investments will be made in the area and half the red-light windows are scheduled to be closed, significantly reducing the breadth and scope of the district.

While red-light windows might not work on the streets of Australia, a more proactive plan to tackle organised crime and transform seedy areas is clearly needed in hot spots like Sydney's King's Cross.

Do you think Australia is over-regulated compared to the Netherlands? Would you like to see Australia adopt any of the Netherlands laws (or lack of them)? Post your comments below.

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