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The story of Mellow Yellow, the first coffee shop in the Netherlands

The Netherlands is known for its tolerant policy on cannabis since the 1970s, with the operation of the well-known coffee shops. Its legislation today is special, as the possession of up to 5 grams is legal, while 5 grams can be purchased from coffee shops. In this context, many have the false impression that drugs are free.

In fact, this country has adopted its own mentality, different from other European states, regarding the concept of the freedom of the individual and, by extension, the use of substances. In fact, many years ago, in 1976, the Dutch Government took the groundbreaking decision to change the Drugs Act, dividing them into two broad categories: hard and soft.

Thus, heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and all chemical drugs were considered hard, while cannabis and its derivatives were considered and are considered to this day, soft drugs. This step was taken to keep cannabis users away from hard drug users.

Named Mellow Yellow after the title of Donovan’s song of the same name

Gradually, the coffee shops of the capital of Amsterdam, inspired smokers all over the Netherlands, who began to open shops. And while today there are such shops all over the country, extremely interesting is the story of the first “official” coffee shop, which was opened in 1972, that is 4 years before the separation of drugs from the government!

First, the owner was writer and activist Wernard Bruining, who implemented his idea with the help of a few friends, utilizing an old occupied Amsterdam bakery. In essence, it is a place where the company frequented and relaxed, chatting, drinking tea and smoking cannabis. This gave them the idea to create a coffee shop, as they did not need a special permit.

The name they gave it was Mellow Yellow and was inspired by the title of the song of the same name by the Scottish musician Donovan, which was a great success at the time. What they were actually looking for was to create a space in which Amsterdam’s cannabis users could get the plant, without any hassles and fuss.

The empty bakery, just before it was converted into the historic store during the period when the shopkeeper’s partner spent there 2-3 hours a day “working” as a cannabis dealer.

Wernard, outsourced the sales to an English neighbor, who spent 2 to 3 hours a day in the old bakery as a dealer. Everyone knew what this “café” was and of course what exactly was offered there. Towards the end of 1972, the English dealer made enough money and made the decision to travel to Greece for new adventures.

Then, Wernard and his friends were forced to look for more professional ways to take advantage of their business. Someone from the team that took over the configuration of the space, placed wooden benches and chairs, thus giving a new form to Mellow Yellow, which was beginning to look more like a bar.

The new dealer, named Peter, immediately became famous for the large leather bag he carried, in which he carried prepackaged cannabis, in bags of various sizes. Now the store was open from early in the morning until 3 am, offering coffee, cannabis and a warm atmosphere to an ever-growing audience.

Initially, grass, which was Lebanese, was not available in large quantities even and was bought by a small dealer, 50 or 100 grams at a time. As the work grew, the demand grew and more people began to come and offer merchandise, including some Moroccans. Wernard began to do business with one of them, Caesar, an important man in this space at that time.

At the same time, the transactions took place in the house of Caesar, who made sure to keep all his contacts away from each other. The supplies became larger and the grass was sold in sachets of 10 grams. Some customers from Amsterdam even bought 10 sachets at a time! Mellow Yellow was doing great and in 1974, its schedule was modified. It now opened at 6 pm to avoid the increased movement of the day.

Mellow Yellow as an old oven at the time of its change from oven to café.

The competition was small at the time, as there were very few coffee shops and the police did not seem to be particularly bothered. In this context, it concentrated all forces on the heroin that arrived at the Amsterdam market in 1972, even though hashish was just as forbidden as opioids. In fact, according to the head of the Prosecutor’s Office at the time, Hartsuiker, “the use of hashish was not considered a real problem.”

Eventually, Mellow Yellow in this form was closed in 1978 (it continued to operate under different directions until 2017), but Wernard’s place in the history of cannabis in the Netherlands, is assured. He founded the first clean and professional store, in which hard drugs were not allowed, possessing grass of excellent quality and a philosophy that treated his visitors more like friends than customers.

There were of course other addresses where cannabis could be obtained, such as Paradiso, Melkweg or Kashba, all places where young people gathered. Mellow Yellow, however, was the only one of its kind until 1975. From then on, many different kinds of shops began to open, more commercially than the hippie style of Wernard Bruining.

The image of the historic coffee shop before it closed in 2017.

Maarten, a regular regular of Mellow Yellow, followed the same path and opened the coffee shop Rusland (Russia), inventing the slogan “Invade Russia, so for change”.

Another amazing guy, Henk de Vries, opened a store called Bulldog, then expanding his businesses with several stores not only in The Netherlands, but also in Canada and Ibiza, Spain. Today, Bulldog is the most famous chain of such stores in the country, while in addition to coffeeshops there are also two cafes, three souvenir shops and a hotel in Amsterdam with this name.

Image from the coffee shop that operates today in the same place.

*Lambros N. Anagnostopoulos studied sociology at the University of the Aegean and is a postgraduate student at the Technological Educational Institute of Larissa in the field of Mental Health. More of his articles can be read here.

[By Lambros N. Anagnostopoulos*]


Nol van Schaik’s book: The Dutch Experience

Cannabis Culture

Canavaccio, texts on the hedonistic drogue, Publications: Eteron

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