To some perhaps the biggest attraction of a visit to Amsterdam is the coffee shop scene. Coffee is of course famously not the only item on the menu, and in most cases probably not the biggest selling either.
For anyone who is unaware Amsterdam has approximately 300 coffee shops which operate solely to sell Marijuana and Hashish which can then be smoked entirely legally on the premises.
The legal selling of Marijuana began in the 1970s when the government amended Dutch law to make a clear distinction between hard and soft drugs. Strictly speaking coffee shops operate within what can best be described as a grey-area in the law, as cannabis is technically still illegal as is selling marijuana or hashish on a large-scale.
However local councils have the right to issue fixed, non-transferable licenses that allow the establishments to trade. The reasoning is that this will help to keep hard and soft drug use separated and in a typically Dutch enlightened way the breach of the law in its strictest sense should be tolerated.
Inside the coffee shops, Marijuana and Hashish can be selected from a menu, not unlike the kind you might find in a restaurant of cafe, and is available to smoke there and then or for take-out.
Once purchased it can be smoked either with the complimentary papers provided or via some form of smoking apparatus. It is often the case that coffee shops will have pipes and bongs that can be borrowed. As a courtesy it is normally expected that if you are smoking within the coffee shop that you should also purchase a drink or food item.
An interesting quirk in the coffee shop experience that has emerged recently is the ban on smoking tobacco. Coffee shops are not exempt from the prohibition of cigarette smoking that has spread through Western Europe in recent years.
So whilst you can sit and happily smoke a substance that remains illicit in much of the world, as soon as you mix in regular tobacco you would be breaking the law if you light-up inside. Some coffee shops have responded to the ban by providing private smoking booths where tobacco can still be smoked, and of course during the warmer parts of the year you can always just sit outside.
A second recent legislative change within the scene is that since 2007 it has been illegal to sell both cannabis and alcohol in the same venue, so don't turn up thinking that you will be able to wash down a space cake with a bottle of Heineken.
The coffee shops in Amsterdam are much like pubs or bars in any normal city, and they vary greatly in terms of atmosphere and style. Tourists tend to gravitate towards the highly-visible well promoted venues in central locations, whilst locals go to the cheaper more hidden neighborhood.
To purchase and smoke cannabis you must be over 18 years old, and this rule is strictly enforced.
Even as cannabis gets decriminalized in other parts of the world there remains something unique about the Dutch approach to tolerating soft-drug use. Some may argue that the coffee shop scene in Amsterdam should be a model to which other communities aspire, others may have strong reservations about any form of legalized drug-use.
Whatever your stance on the matter, any trip to Amsterdam would be lacing without at least taking a look at how another society approaches the problem of drugs. Despite the recent regulatory changes that have forced the shops to adapt the scene remains a vibrant and inimitable part of the city's culture.