Interview Hans van den Hurk - Conscious Dreams

No one has been more important to the Dutch smartshop world than Hans van den Hurk (55). Twenty years ago, when he founded Conscious Dreams in the city centre of Amsterdam, smartshops were a completely new phenomenon. ‘I like to discover the limits’.

Not too long ago, magic mushrooms were legally sold at every Dutch smartshop. This lucrative product allowed Hans to create a small empire of ten smartshops in only two decades. It didn’t last that long, due to frequent new laws banning certain substances. High peaks, deep lows; several times he had to start all over again. But that didn’t affect his fighting spirit. All the contrary, this jolly entrepreneur is unbeatably positive and still foresees a great future for the smart industry, despite – or possibly even because of – the ban on magic mushrooms.

Where did you get the idea to open a smartshop?

By the end of the eighties I worked as a volunteer for the Safe House Campaign. That was one of the first harm reductions campaigns in the Netherlands: I tested XTC on rave parties and informed party goers about safe drug use. Every weekend I was at these massive dance parties from Groningen to Maastricht. And on Monday morning I’d go to my job in IT.

Were you able to combine these two?

As time passed by, it became a bit of a struggle. But most of all, I wanted to take it to another level. Not only testing, but legal supply via the GGD (Dutch Association of Mental Health and Addiction Care). Because I found that many people had no idea what they were consuming.

At the same time I got an increasing number of questions at the Safe House stand about substances, herbs and extracts I’d never heard of. I started doing research on those and realised: this is what I want to do!

Opening your own shop?

That was an impulsive decision actually. I drove through the Kerkstraat with a friend and saw this property for rent. And I knew, this is for me! Shortly thereafter I quit my job and together with my brother in law Roland (and a loan) we started the Art, Mind and Design Centre.

What did you sell in there?

Art! From boys and girls who’d just graduated from art school, wayward photography, cyber art, very different from the works that were exposed in the nearby galleries in the Spiegelstraat (art district, Ed.). But, we also sold smart nutrients, big jars with dietary supplements with names like Blast, Fast Blast and Memory Fuel.

We would add them to so-called health drinks: cocktails with choline for memory and tyrosine for energy and all kinds of sugars that allowed you to party all night long, but in a healthy way.

Did these products hit it off right away?

Not really. After a year we’d practically run out of money. Then all of a sudden, someone came by on his bike with a big box full of psychoactive mushrooms, Psilocybe cubensis. He said: I think you’re allowed to sell these here as well. From that moment on, we had weekly deliveries.

The quantities kept increasing. We weighed them on a big scale, just as they do in grocery stores. You would receive them in a paper bag. With one little flyer, because we always handed out user information to our customers. Before long, people were lining up in front of the door.

This is how suppliers of other mind-expanding products found out about us. In no time our product range exploded. Smartshop Conscious Dreams was born.

Over the next six years you ran a ‘Friendsize’ chain of ten Conscious Dreams smartshops and you had over a hundred wholesale clients. To what extent did this success rely on magic mushrooms?

At least for 50%. And for quite some time we were the only wholesale vendor, so at the very start it was 100%.

Did ‘law enforcement’ keep an eye out for you, at the time?

We’ve already had been in contact with them, on a few occasions. Clients had been arrested and I myself had to undergo a hearing a few times. But they couldn’t do very much then. We knew that the active substance of magic mushrooms was controlled by the Opium Law, but not the mushroom itself. My motto was always: I’m not breaking the law, but I like to discover the limits.

At the time I had regular talks with the Ministry of Public Health and Justice, the goal of these consultations was to develop a good policy. I did the same in my business, for our staff we were always strict: no sales under the counter, no rascal behaviour. So I felt pretty confident: I thought I was in a safe position.

But then the High Court decided in 2002 that sales of dried and processed mushrooms was penalised by law. You were sentenced as if you were the chief of a criminal organisation.

That was the first blow. Eventually I was sentenced because we had dried and processed mushrooms in stock. I tried to defend this in all kinds of ways, but when they found professional drying equipment with the growers that we worked with, there was no way out. My verdict was 240 hours of service and a probation period of six months.

A short while later a few deadly incidents happened, where magic mushrooms played a part.

Accidents, yes. Incidents that were blown up by the media, as they created strongly exaggerated, sensationalist stories. For most of these incidents, more in-depth research could never prove that magic mushrooms had actually played a part.

But this led to the definite ban on the cultivation and sale of fresh shrooms in 2008.

This was the biggest blow of all. And this is where I got this feeling: is this what we’ve been fighting for all these years? It was of course a bit of a cat-and-mouse game with Justice, but there was a higher purpose to it. Supplying good products and correct information, boss of your own brain!

I always reckoned that the Justice department would become more open to it. Abroad, at the etnobotanic conferences I used to visit, people thought it was amazing that I spoke so much with the ministry; that we actually TALKED. That was all over now, with this new law - the most restrictive in the world - that prohibits even the fly agaric.

But you always wanted to uphold law, so this was over. Now what?

Besides the mushrooms, we had the Ephedra products that were in high demand. But when those were banned too, our chain of Friendsizes became weak. One shop after the other got in trouble. For a long time I thought that we would build it up again, with all our knowledge and international network.

But things didn’t look good at all. Eventually our wholesale company had no other choice but to pull the plug. Everyone was devastated, it was horrible.

So how did you go on then?

I was then still co-owner of a former Conscious Dreams shop, Kokopelli. From there I tried to start over with our own range of dietary supplements: Smartlab. But it didn’t succeed. I wanted too much and everything at once: create new things, research and development.

But I was lacking the right people, specialists. In august 2009 I was bought by a larger logistic company. That saved me. Since then it’s only ‘Conscious’ and we’ve stopped dreaming.

What future do you foresee for the next 20 years, for the smartshop industry?

There have been moments where I thought: this is totally collapsing. But in the last couple of years, my confidence renewed. The peak years for Dutch smartshops have been from 2000 to 2002, until the second mushroom ban, from where it all went downhill.

But this industry is resourceful. If it continues to innovate and manoeuvre among the new regulations, I foresee a grand future. And I don’t mean the edgy behaviour of the smartshops in the old days, but real professionalism!

Azarius magazine

This article first appeared in the second edition of the Azarius Magazine.