If a man buys hallucinogenic mushrooms over the counter and nobody is there to arrest him, does it make a sound?

That is (sort of) the question tourists from the United States and around the globe ponder if they venture to the mother of all vice cities: Amsterdam, Netherlands, home to legalized marijuana, legalized magic mushrooms, legalized gambling, legalized prostitution and probably a whole lot of other legalized crap you’ve never even heard of. The town is a prime destination for young men and women looking to dabble in mind-enhancers, older men trying to recapture some of their glorified youth, even older men hoping for one last hurrah before they die and total nerds looking to break free of their social inadequacy.

I went there this summer. And to someone who has never even been to Las Vegas, it was a shell-shocker. Within a quick walk from the train station, roads smelled odd, coffee houses stopped selling coffee and stores had mushroom fridges. The city promoted prostitution and the red-light district as a tourist attraction. Did any other cities in the world embraced such decadence? Amsterdam was Vegas on steroids, or some other drug.

Most surprising was how tourist-friendly the city seemed – to adults, at least – when a generally accepted viewpoint among Americans is that such indulgence eventually leads to immoral behavior, corruption and crime. Thirty years ago, Times Square was a “red-light district” – one of New York City’s seedy neighborhoods, rife with crime and prostitution fought by an overwhelmed police force. Conversely, the Netherlands government has tolerated prostitution and drug use, choosing to monitor legal institutions and commerce rather than fight illegal ones.

But signs are this attitude may catch up to the Netherlands; that America’s generally accepted philosophy on excessive debauchery is accurate. Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen recently ordered the closing of a portion of the red-light district in order to “get rid of the underlying criminality,” according to U.K. news Web site Daily Mail.

Now this begs the simple-minded question: how can there be underlying criminality where everything is legal? According to Daily Mail, “The district is a magnet for petty criminals and human traffickers, drug lords and mobsters who take advantage of the situation to launder money.” So legalizing prostitution is ineffective at curbing criminal behavior arising from prostitution. This is not an indictment of the Netherlands government – their socially liberal laws are for the enjoyment of citizens and tourists more than the mitigation of crime – but it is indicative of human nature. Criminality will surface regardless of tolerance of indulgence.

Though at this rate it will be centuries before Amsterdam nears the U.S. in social conservatism, it’s worth noting that the city is more than legalized drugs and prostitution. There’s supposedly some museum full of paintings by some famous artist – Van something. It’s probably worth a trip.

Fountaine is a member of the class of 2008.

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