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Smoke across the water: Pitt study abroad students adjust to weed culture shock

By Jack Trainor / Staff Writer

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When Kative Crivellaro smoked a joint last summer in Amsterdam, she was nervous. Not because marijuana is illegal in the United States, but because she “was desperately trying not to come off as an American tourist.”

Before  they go abroad, Pitt’s Study Abroad Office warns its travelers about the possibility of culture shock — even if the destination is an English-speaking country. For places where marijuana has become part of the culture via decriminalization or legalization, this could certainly be jarring, given the substance’s stigma in the United States. 

Despite its legalization in Colorado and Washington, marijuana is still a Schedule I drug in the United States, meaning that it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s website. The call to end this prohibition has gained traction with Colorado and Washington’s historic legislation, which has accelerated the discussion on nation-wide legalization. 

In accordance with Pitt’s student conduct policy abroad, students must follow the laws of the host country and are responsible for knowing what is and is not legal while there. Further, the policy states that abuse of any legal substances, such as pills, is cause for involuntary withdrawal from the program. 

With this in mind, Crivellaro, a junior communications major with a certificate in gender, sexuality and women’s studies, lived in Amsterdam for the fall semester as part of the Council of International Educational Exchange. CIEE is an American nonprofit that offers alternative Pitt-recognized study abroad programs to college students. 

When she arrived in Amsterdam, Crivellaro could smell pot in the streets as soon as she stepped off the train “like a greeting,” she said. 

According to Dutch law, residents can hold up to five grams for personal use. In Amsterdam, dealers sell pot openly, and, misleadingly, so do coffee shops, which are known more for their pot sales than for actual coffee — for that, patrons have to seek out a cafe.  Crivellaro visited a coffee shop on her third night, when she purchased and smoked a pre-rolled joint with some friends.

Even though pot is more easily accessible in Amsterdam, its streets aren’t clouded with smoke. 

For comparison, Crivellaro attended the Amsterdam Music Festival, she said, a two-day electronic dance music event that attracts approximately 140,000 people from all over the world, and “it still wasn’t as hazy” as Wiz Khalifa’s 2012 concert in Pittsburgh. 

Similarly, junior Adam Curley traveled to Prague last May, where up to four grams of pot is decriminalized. Prague’s relaxed laws in comparison to the U.S., he said, “changed [his] whole perspective of America.”

Curley, a general management and supply chain management dual major, had long disagreed with U.S. marijuana laws, especially after returning from Prague, which showed him that “it can be legal and that it’s possible to have a functioning society with [decriminalized] pot.”

In 2013, Colorado’s first full year of legalized marijuana, sales topped $700 million. After visiting Prague, Curley, a business major, sees the weed industry as a lucrative business opportunity.“I’m just waiting for the next [state] to legalize,” he said. Seeing all the money Colorado has made already, Curley’s dream is to someday start his own medicinal marijuana distribution service, “so people can get their medicine without having to leave the house.”

Like alcohol in the States, marijuana has a reputation abroad as a social icebreaker. When trying Amsterdam’s legalized cannabis, Crivellaro found it had varying social effects on her relationships with other students. She bonded with other Americans studying abroad over the substance, she said, who aren’t used to its open consumption. 

However, Crivellaro found that smoking distanced her from her Dutch friends, who are used to legalization.

“It just made me lazier,” Crivellaro said.

Another Pitt junior, who asked that her name not be published due to marijuana’s illegal status in the U.S., lived in Berlin from February to August of last year, where possessing up to 15 grams of the plant is legal. She said that, theoretically, “the [marijuana] policies in Berlin make it easier to make friends, since a lot of people are trying new things for the first time.”

Her professors took her class on a tour of the city, which included Görlitzer Park, a local park where public pot consumption notoriously coexists with family picnics.

Crivellaro and Curley agreed that pot can attract college students to study abroad programs with liberated weed laws, especially as marijuana remains in the American public’s consciousness as nationwide debate on legalization rages on.  

While easier access to pot may attract some students, “it shouldn’t be the only reason to go [somewhere],” said Crivellaro, especially in Amsterdam, whose museums, festivals and culture are “so beautiful.” 

Much like traveling outside of the host country every weekend, spending the whole trip in the clouds might leave students with a sense of detachment from the very place they chose to visit. So while some countries’ pot may be legal, “When you’re continuously smoking,” Crivellaro said, “you miss out.”  

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Smoke across the water: Pitt study abroad students adjust to weed culture shock