By Herbert. M. Green
What the hell happened to the Dutch’s liberal and tolerant approach towards cannabis? Why is the Netherlands lagging behind the rest the world in the discussion about legalization, when it used to be the frontrunner? Why, for that matter, isn’t weed already legal here in the first place? These are all good questions with no easy answers. I am, however, going to try and shed some light on the situation thus far.
From star pupil to class clown
In light of recent developments concerning the legal status of cannabis worldwide, I think we can all agree the debate surrounding legalization shouldn’t be “why” but “when”. We all know the reasons to say yes outweigh the reasons to say no. Take for instance these positive outcomes: more money in the treasury because of new tax revenue streams, less pressure on the police force, better regulation of the product and an open market system.
Unfortunately, most Dutch government officials haven’t caught up with the zeitgeist just yet. The days that the Netherlands was a frontrunner in the international discussion on cannabis are long gone. Now we’re the brat in the back of the classroom, launching spitballs at the other classmates. Which begs the question; what does the future of cannabis hold for the Netherlands?
What’s the big deal?
If you have ever been to Amsterdam or any other major city in the Netherlands, you might have seen or visited what we Dutch call “Coffeeshops”. These are cannabis dispensaries in the form of coffee bars – where, if one is so inclined – you can wander in, order up to 5 grams of cannabis or hash along with a cappuccino and start rolling a big fat blunt. At this point you might be wondering; Wait a minute! If you can just waltz in and buy weed, then what’s the big deal?!
Allow me to explain; Contrary to what most people believe, the consumption of cannabis in the Netherlands isn’t legal at all. That is to say, not entirely. It’s merely tolerated in the sense that you won’t be prosecuted if the cops catch you with five grams or less on your person. The Dutch call this crazy half measure “Het gedoogbeleid” or “Policy of Tolerance”.
If by now, frown lines of confusion have formed on your face, I strongly suggest you read one of my previous articles; “Dutch cannabis law explained”, where I delve deeper into what’s what in wacky Holland. But for now, just know that buying enough weed for a couple of joints won’t get you in any trouble.
Smoking is okay. But what about growing?
As it stands today, most of the weed in the Netherlands is grown in clandestine locations like attics of vacant houses, abandoned warehouses or hidden greenhouses.
This practice of “shadow pot farming” has been going on ever since the Dutch government saw fit to outlaw the cultivation of cannabis in large quantities in 1976. These “improv” plantations are usually set up haphazardly and are a fire hazard waiting to happen. In a small country like the Netherlands, that can be a major problem.
Besides that, most of these ‘pop-up farms’ are run or have been taken over by criminal organizations, which gives the police ample reason to crack down hard on large-scale growers. These “Cannabis Taskforces” don’t discriminate between obviously criminal operations or innocent and honest growers who want to help others by growing more than they need for their own consumption, or just want to make a little extra money. In the eyes of the justice system, everyone that grows more than five plants is considered scum. This goes for 90% of those who grow five plants or less as well, but more on that later.
Because of this fervent desire to rid the Netherlands of all cannabis cultivation, law enforcement agencies have to spend a lot of money and manpower to find and dismantle these farms as well as finding and prosecuting the people behind them; time and money that could be better spent elsewhere.
“The only thing left for you to do at that point is be thankful the police haul you away for prosecution”
Also thanks to the criminal element in the production of Dutch weed, we have no idea what kind of tricks and tomfoolery they are pulling to enlarge their profit margins or what kind of pesticides they are using. Which means more than half the time, we don’t know what the hell we’re smoking, because there is no quality control whatsoever. Yet another reason why we need to regulate cannabis cultivation, a.s.a.p.!
So the weed just magically appears in coffeeshops?
Ha! I wish! That would be awesome! But no, by the time a harvest is ready for consumption, it still has to be transported to the Coffeeshops, through the backdoor so to speak, because the wholesale of cannabis is still illegal. The couriers who are employed by these coffeeshops run the risk of being charged with drug trafficking!
And here comes the kicker; A Coffeeshop is only allowed to have 500 grams of product in stock at any given time. Assuming an average shop sells about ten times that much every day, especially in the major cities like Amsterdam, you can see where that might become a problem. Coffeeshop owners need to restock their inventory multiple times a day!
This complex conundrum is what we Dutch call “The Backdoor Problem”, and this is the main reason why so many people are demanding change. Legalization would mean an end to these problems. It would also come with benefits, namely; less pressure on law enforcement, taxpayers euro’s could be allocated for better use elsewhere, more tax revenue would become available for the State and there would be more wiggle room for quality control as well as medical research.
“Vera Bergkamp stirred up the Dutch cannabis debate by proposing and submitting a new and improved cannabis policy.”
But, what about the medical users and home growers?
I briefly mentioned that growing up to five plants is considered ‘okay’ under the Policy of Tolerance. This is partly true, as long as you grow outside or without the aid of tools like lamps or other resources. And if the police get wind of your crops – or a neighbor has ratted you out – they’ll drop by for some forced gardening. The only thing left for you to do at that point, is be thankful the police hasn’t hauled you away for prosecution.
This is all in theory though, because in 90% of the cases, even those who grow for medicinal purposes are prosecuted for ‘intent to sell’ anyways and stand to lose their jobs and their homes.
So, what’s the hold-up?
The hold-up is, as always, political. This country is still run by legislators who are operating on archaic notions and misinformation. Our own Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, has gone on record repeatedly that he thinks cannabis is ‘garbage’. He even went as far as calling it an addictive substance and a danger to public health.
Besides that, his fellow party member and former Minister of Safety and Justice, Ard van der Steur has, up till late 2016, ignored any proposal to change the status of cannabis legality altogether, stating that it would be in conflict with UN-treaties regarding international drug policies. Even though, a recent study* by law professors at the Radboud University in Nijmegen has shown that this is not the case. This study revealed, in no uncertain terms, that our right to choose outweighs the aforementioned international drug treaties.
Another argument against legalization most politicians on the right side of the political spectrum keep coming back to is illegal export to other (EU) countries. They fear that, if we legalize the production of cannabis, 80% of Dutch sticky icky will end up across the Dutch borders. Even though this assumption has also been disproven**, it will be a long time before those who subscribe to it will admit they are wrong.
*/** : Sorry! Both research reports are in Dutch. No translation available as of yet.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
So is there no room in this political landscape for fields full of Mary Jane? Does the future of 4:20 look grim? Yes and no. There is light at the end of the tunnel, it’s a pinprick, but it’s a light nonetheless.
In early 2015, parliamentarian and pro-cannabis politician Vera Bergkamp stirred up the Dutch cannabis debate by proposing and submitting a new and improved cannabis policy***. One that should get rid of the “Backdoor Problem” and allow Dutch coffeeshops to be supplied by government sanctioned and regulated pot-farms.
To everyone’s surprise, this new law proposal was accepted by a majority of Dutch parliament in February of 2017. Now it’s up to the Dutch Senate to give the go-ahead for the proposal to become an official law.
But that can take a while since the general elections in March of 2017 changed the political landscape yet again. We’ll have to wait and see how the political winds are going to blow for the next four years.
***: Again, Dutch only. You’ll have to take my word for it, sorry!
In the meantime, we are not going to sit on our asses!
Because most cannabis enthusiasts are perfectly aware that real change is still a long way off and it isn’t like the Dutchies just to sit around and wait for things to happen, several different groups are trying to make a difference in their own, unique ways.
Advocacy organizations like V.O.C (The Society For Lifting the Ban On Cannabis) and P.G.M.C.G. (Institute for Medical Cannabis Patients) have been fighting for better cannabis policies for a long while now, and will continue to do so. Their efforts have seen a major increase in the last couple of years, fueled by the international cannabis debate .
Then there are the Dutch Cannabis Social Clubs, most notably Suver Nuver and Cannabis Social Club Amsterdam (CSCA). The big difference between these two clubs is that the first is trying to force the issue by openly defying the law. By advertising their large scale cultivation of cannabis to supply its members, Suver Nuver Medical Social Club founder and Dutch rebel, Rinus Beintema hopes to get arrested and prosecuted to create a national platform to force the cannabis discussion.
A bit less cavalier but just as noble, is the way CSCA goes about trying to change cannabis culture in the Netherlands. CSCA – or Tree of Life as the club is officially named –
Is attempting to grow on a large scale too, but unlike the rebellious Suver Nuver SC, they want to do everything above-board and in conjunction with national and municipal government. They have already picked out a spot with the blessing of Amsterdam’s mayor, Egbert van der Laan, to grow enough cannabis to cater to their 500 club members. The only thing standing in its way, for now, is approval from the national government for special dispensation from the Dutch Opium Law.
So, end good all good?
It seems like a solution to the Dutch cannabis problem is in sight and all will be well in the Lowlands, right? Unfortunately, like most things on this earth, nothing is what it seems. First off, as previously mentioned, it will take many years before there is an actual change in the legal status of cannabis and its cultivation. Mostly because there is still a lot of political opposition and the negative stigma surrounding cannabis is still very much alive in the minds of the Dutch general public.
Secondly, even if – by some miracle – the Dutch Senate decides to give the go-ahead for large-scale cannabis reform – as per Vera Bergkamp’s proposal – many Dutch cannabis experts fear there will be a state monopoly on pot.
No matter what final shape or form the new cannabis laws will take on, one certainty is that the government will oversee and regulate the cultivation of cannabis. This means the state will have last say in which company gets to do the actual growing. Chances are there will only be a handful of government sanctioned parties who will receive that honor. As we all know, monopolies are bad for business and even worse for product quality and diversity.
To be continued….
It seems the Netherlands is still a long way off from full legalization. Even worse, if we take a look at the political landscape as is, the parties who are the biggest opponents of cannabis reforms (The Liberal Party VVD and the Christian Democrats of the CDA) are running the show. Which means we have a long and hard fight ahead of us.