How Amsterdam Became Europe’s Hyper Drug Market

This Hedonistic Disneyland has escalated far beyond psychedelics and weed to become a city of speed.
April 23, 2021, 12:17pm
High Planet: How Amsterdam Became Europe’s Hyper Drug Market
Image: Lily Blakely
A series reporting on the world's most extreme – and idiosyncratic – drug scenes.

Ever since Amsterdam adopted a tolerant drug policy in the 1970s, the tranquil, canal-speckled capital of the Netherlands with its famous weed-selling coffeeshops has become a cornerstone of global drug culture. 

But Amsterdam is no longer just a stoner haven for tourists, where visitors can come to get high with relative impunity and stumble around the central Vondelpark after downing a box of psychedelic truffles. The city’s drug scene has escalated way beyond that.

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Burgeoning amphetamine production, competing organised crime gangs, a myriad of cheap and pure drugs and an intensifying nightlife scene have created a huge, globally-connected hyper drug market like no other.

A strong, homegrown lab infrastructure for making stimulant drugs such as speed and MDMA, and easy connections to Europe’s biggest drug trafficking ports in Rotterdam and Antwerp have led to city crime groups and international cartels vying for a bigger slice of the action. This has sparked escalating violence – and fears the city is becoming the capital of a de facto narco-state.

In the wake of rising crime and the void of tourists left by the COVID-19 pandemic, Amsterdam’s left-wing mayor Femke Halsema is proposing to ban future tourists from buying weed and relocate the Red Light District out of the city centre. Halsema announced in March she was ordering prosecutors to mount a serious crackdown on street dealers. 

“When the clubs and bars do reopen, they will do so with stimulant drugs coursing through the city’s veins. Because the true kings and queens of Amsterdam’s after-hours drug culture are the all-night highs that get the heart racing: ecstasy, MDMA, speed, meth, cocaine, GHB”

Lockdown has shuttered Amsterdam’s clubbing scene, with two big clubs, Jack and De School, closing down. But that hasn’t stopped the city’s conveyor belt of drug supply, and drug use, especially among young people. Research released last month found that 40 percent of students in the city said they were more likely to drink and take drugs compared to before the pandemic. 

When the clubs and bars do reopen, they will do so with stimulant drugs coursing through the city’s veins. Because the true kings and queens of Amsterdam’s after-hours drug culture are the all-night highs that get the heart racing: ecstasy, MDMA, speed, meth, cocaine, GHB, and more recently a host of designer amphetamines, including 3MMC, 4FMP, 4FA, and 6-APB. 

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Lukas, who spoke with VICE World News on condition of anonymity, called emergency services to a house party last year when a stranger on a mixture of GHB – a popular liquid drug known for its euphoric high and deadly potential for overdose – and crystal meth began overdosing in the bathtub of his apartment.

“I stay away from that drug [GHB] now,” he said. “It’s definitely gotten pretty wild over the last two years or so, especially with the G. It’s becoming more and more normal especially among the Dutchies to just keep taking shit like 3-MMC [a designer drug similar to mephedrone] and other stims and stay up for days, like literal days.” 

Partly due to Amsterdam, the Netherlands has the highest ecstasy and amphetamine consumption in Europe, according to the National Drug Monitor, an annual official report on drug trends. In the case of amphetamines, one in ten 20-24 year-olds and 13 percent of 25-29 year-olds reported having taken the drug in 2020. Among visitors to Amsterdam pubs, the percentage that had ever used amphetamine has risen from 18 percent to 38 percent.

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A video installation shows men taking a look inside a brothel at 'Red Light Secrets', the first Museum of Prostitution in Amsterdam. Photo: Koen van Weel/AFP via Getty Images

For some, Amsterdam is simply a hedonistic Disneyland, but for many of the regulars who find themselves tucked into the pockets of the city’s nightlife and party culture, it’s a tolerant cosmopolitan centre where they feel free to express themselves, both on or off drugs. 

“Within the party and drug scene here you have two sides. On the one hand you have what I call the more ‘institutional’ scene, that’s the more mainstream clubs where you see the staple drugs, the ecstasy and the cocaine,” said one rave organiser, who did not want to be named for fear of attracting police attention over drugs. “Then you have your more queer, underground scene, more about creating a space where people can really be themselves. Here you see classic uppers but also the newer drugs, like 3-MMC and GHB.” 

Mixing and matching substances in a cocktail of three or four drugs is also becoming more common. Dealers are also offering an actual cocktail, Blue 69, a mixture of Blue Curaçao (liquor), GHB, MDMA, and speed. 

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Ever-increasing demand for drugs and a large homegrown production infrastructure has made Amsterdam a paradise for consumers. Strong competition among dealers means that a rainbow of uppers, downers, and everything in between is often just a WhatsApp message away and delivered within minutes. 

In Amsterdam, drugs are pure and cheap. A gram of MDMA costs between £30 and £40 in the UK – in the Netherlands it's around €20 (£17). An average ecstasy pill contained a record 172mg of MDMA in 2020, an increase of nearly 150 percent from five years earlier

The city’s close relationship with amphetamines goes back half a century. Since the 1970s, the Netherlands has developed a large amphetamine production infrastructure and it remains a European hub of speed supply. According to one drug supplier VICE World News spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous, speed producers are a “dime a dozen” in Amsterdam. 

In the late 1980s, Dutch speed producers started making MDMA, and the country is now one of the largest producers and exporters of MDMA and ecstasy pills in the world. In the last few years, with the help of Mexican cartel chemists, the country has become a major European player in the production and worldwide export of crystal meth. It is no coincidence that Amsterdam sits in close proximity to Rotterdam and Antwerp, two of the largest drug and precursor chemical trafficking ports in Europe.

The legacy of a long history of progressive drug policies largely credited with squashing Amsterdam’s heroin epidemic in the 1970s means that users can have their drugs tested for free at one of the city’s government-funded testing services. Drug monitoring programmes mean that experts can quickly react and inform the public if an especially risky pill or substance hits the market.

Earlier this month, harm reduction groups swiftly put out an alert after 2C-B (another Dutch designer drug) pills with a pink Tesla logo were found to have extremely high amounts of DOC, a potent psychedelic that can leave users sometimes tripping for 24 hours, and which put seven people in hospital. 

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There is a habit of people looking out for each other on Amsterdam’s drugs scene. “The scene does feel more like a family compared to Paris and Berlin,” ADHDJ, a local DJ and rave organizer, told VICE World News. “It’s something unique in my opinion to Amsterdam.” 

But set against escalating violence in the drug trade, the rising presence of organised and international crime syndicates, and an increasingly conservative political sphere, this traditionally pragmatic and tolerant approach to drug use is starting to change. 

“For decades drug policy here has been focused primarily on harm reduction rather than supply reduction,” said Daan van der Gouwe, a researcher at the Trimbos Institute, which studies drug use trends and policy in the Netherlands. “More recently you see this paradigm shift in the political climate away from these tolerant attitudes towards drugs, with more and more emphasis being placed on supply reduction and demand reduction.” 

Yet Amsterdam’s identity and drugs seem to be intrinsically, and perhaps permanently, interwoven. 

“In both a good and bad sense drugs have always been a part of our city, of our experiences of the city,” said Ton Nabben, a drugs researcher at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, who said he took speed in the 1980s. “After speaking to people, especially younger ones, they tell me that drugs are part of the way in which they form an emotional community within Amsterdam. That was true for me decades ago,” he continued, “and it’s true for them now.”