When in Florence

Florence, Italy.

Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, has been one of the most beautiful cities in the Western world for almost a thousand years. Now considered one of the most desirable tourist destinations of all, especially for its art, architecture and cultural heritage, the city features elegant plazas, palaces, churches, monasteries, museums, art galleries and magnificent parks and gardens.

I’m here for 10 days on a rare personal mission, visiting my friend Soul Lucille without one gig, personal appearance or other responsibility beyond filing this column for the Metro Times to impede my full enjoyment of this great cultural metropolis, walking the ancient streets where once trod such incredible human beings as Dante, Boccaccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Donatello and Gallileo.

I’d been seriously disappointed on previous trips to Italy by the difficulty in finding adequate medicine after the Italian government headed by media baron Silvio Berlusconi (sort of the Rupert Murdoch of Italy) cracked down on marijuana and severely criminalized users and growers. When in Rome the first time in 2006, I met guys who were growing some very good weed where I was staying at Forte Prenestino, the 19th century army installation taken over by the autonomie movement in the 1980s. But the next time I visited, their gardens had been torn up, their growing had ended.

The only smoke I found in Italy was uniformly low-grade hashish. Someone told me that there was a single source for hash in the criminal underworld and everybody got the same stuff to peddle retail, which seemed to make sense in the society that gave “organized crime” its bad name.

Since then I’ve toured Italy extensively, playing gigs and doing readings and lectures, but nobody ever had any good weed to share, and my symptoms ? physical aches and pains, mental anguish, the recurring paucity of creative inspiration ? would go largely untreated until I could get back to my base in Amsterdam.

It was the same thing in France: Beyond Paris, where I had friends in the viper underground, it was difficult to find something medicinal to smoke. Last year I attended the MNOP festival ? Music of New Orleans in Perigeoux ? and went three days without a joint or even a whiff on the festival grounds. I suffered along with my compatriots from the 101 Runners Mardi Gras Indian funk band ? and the entire New Orleans contingent ? from the continuous absence of medication.

As a medical marijuana patient in Michigan, I can travel around the state that once imprisoned me for possessing two joints, and to the other 15 states that recognize cannabis as medicine as well as our nation’s capital, without fear of arrest and with a fair assurance of the availability of dosages of appropriate quality wherever I might go. This spring, my friend Ben Dronkers in Amsterdam alerted me to the benefits of medical marijuana status in the Netherlands and, by extension, the European Union.

While it’s still possible for anyone over 18, sick or well, to purchase up to five grams of cannabis over the counter at any of Holland’s 750 coffee shops, the Netherlands has also recognized marijuana as a medicine and allows for prescription by doctors and medical practitioners for a whole range of illnesses.

So I made an appointment with a doctor in Amsterdam who had been recommended to me. I showed him my Michigan patient card and explained that I would feel better if I had a prescribed dose of marijuana in my possession when I was in Holland and elsewhere in the European Union. He wrote me a prescription for 10 grams of cannabis flos to be taken at the rate of one gram per two days.

My visit cost ?49 (about $70 U.S.) at the doctor’s office, and to fill my prescription at the pharmacy on Dam Square amounted to another ?93, or ?9.30 per gram. But I had to wait three days for the prescription to be filled, since the pharmacy didn’t stock the required medicine and had to send out for it.

Now I have two refillable official 5-gram containers with my prescription written on the side, my doctor’s name and the signature of the Minister of Health or whatever he’s called in Holland. As Dronkers explained, this medicine prescribed by a doctor in the EU would be recognized as medicine throughout the EU, no matter the local laws pertaining to recreational marijuana use.

The bottom line is that I’m now taking it with me around the European Union, thus making sure I have my medicine in the prescribed strength and dosage at all times and under the protection of the European medical establishment. This is so far superior to sitting in a foreign place for seven days praying for a toke that it isn’t even funny.

Medical marijuana in the Netherlands may soon become a subject of great interest to American and other foreign visitors to Amsterdam. Speaking of not funny, DutchNews.nl reports that the right-wing government of the Netherlands “is pressing ahead with plans to turn all caf?s selling small amounts of cannabis into members-only clubs, accessible only to people officially living in the Netherlands.

“Ministers say turning the so-called coffee shops into private clubs will reduce drugs-related tourism and public nuisance, and ‘adequate measures’ will be taken by police and officials to make sure the move does not lead to an increase in street dealing.”

The attack on the coffee shops ? and, consequently, the entire cannabis culture of Holland ? follows upon the 2009 recommendations of a government commission, which said hashish and marijuana were now much more powerful than in the 1970s, and that “the bigger the coffee shops get, the more likely they are to be in the hands of organized crime.” Thus, the commission concluded, the caf?s should become smaller and only sell to locals.

What are these characters smoking? Over the past 40 years, Holland has developed a system that is working very smoothly for the society as a whole and that has generated an extensive industry based on the cultivation, delivery and retail sale of marijuana and hashish. The strength and efficiency of the product has simply increased in response to consumer demand.

From my own point of view, the only flaw in the present system is that cultivation and delivery remain illegal while personal use and retail sales are entirely decriminalized. The idiocy lies in the fact that the illegal growing industry involves about 40,000 people and is estimated to generate some ?2 billion a year. If marijuana were fully legalized there would be no more “organized crime” in the cannabis industry whatsoever.

The Dutch marijuana identity card issue arose just as I was leaving Holland for Italy last week. I’ll be filing my next column from Amsterdam and plan to catch up on the fallout from this destructive edict upon my return. Until then, I’ll be enjoying my Dutch medical marijuana here on the Piazza della Repubblica and all over Florence while I’m in this amazing Renaissance city.


John Sinclair, founder of the White Panthers, is a poet. His latest book is It’s All Good.

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