When the Government of the Netherlands announced in October 2017 plans for an experiment with regulated cannabis production to supply the country’s famous coffee shops, the cannabis industry cautiously welcomed the idea. After more than two decades of increasing repression and criminalization, it seemed the Dutch government had finally turned the page and was taking its first step toward firm legalization.
However, the initial enthusiasm has since faded as the rules and limitations of the experiment have become clear.
Cannabis Tolerated, But Not Legal In Netherlands
To understand how the Dutch came to be in this situation, some historical context is needed. Cannabis was decriminalized in the Netherlands in 1976. Consumption became legal for adults and there was a distinction made in the drug law — called the Opium Law, or Opiumwet — between cannabis products and other illegal drugs. Penalties related to hard drugs became harsher in an attempt to counter the effects of cheap heroin flooding the Dutch market after the end of the Vietnam War. Cannabis itself remained illegal, but people were no longer prosecuted for possession of up to 30 grams (slightly more than an ounce). To this day, possession, production and sales of any amount of cannabis remain illegal.
The crucial word and concept of the Dutch cannabis policy is gedogen, which roughly translates to “to tolerate” — police will tolerate some activities that are technically illegal, as long as certain criteria are met by the offender. The ministerial guidelines concerning home growing are a good example: If an adult grows no more than five cannabis plants for personal use and agrees to hand over the plants to the police when caught, they will not be prosecuted, but the plants will be seized. And although no criminal charges will be brought against home growers, they can be evicted from their home by the mayor or their local housing organization.
The coffee shops are also “tolerated” in this manner. If a shop is found to have broken any of the so-called condoning criteria, it can be closed immediately for a minimum of three months. The criteria include keeping a maximum stock of just 500 grams of weed (a little more than a pound) at any given time, no matter the size or turnover of the coffee shop. This has forced coffee shops to run complicated schemes with runners to replenish the stock several times a day — especially in Amsterdam.
But the real Achilles’ heel of the coffee shop policy is the absence of any regulation of the production or wholesale of cannabis products — the notorious “backdoor paradox.” This paradox has triggered every predictable prohibition mechanism: more involvement from organized crime, more violence, an exodus of bona fide small growers, unsafe grow operations, corruption and contaminated cannabis.
A logical solution to properly regulating production and wholesale has been debated for more than 20 years inside and outside of parliament. Seventy percent of the population wants legalization; mayors have been begging politicians in The Hague to modernize the cannabis laws so their communities will no longer have to suffer the fallout from the political stalemate.
The Launch Of The Dutch Weed Experiment
It seemed the long-awaited breakthrough had come in early 2017. A law proposal by Dutch politician Vera Bergkamp of the progressive Democrats 66 (D66) party to regulate the backdoor paradox won a tiny majority in the Dutch House of Representatives, just before the national elections in March 2017. Following these elections and months of negotiations, a four-party coalition came into power — the third government led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Rutte has a personal dislike of cannabis, calling it “shit” and “garbage” on numerous occasions. His VVD party (the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) is liberal in name, but its stance on cannabis has little to do with liberalism. With a government made up of the VVD, two Christian parties and the D66, the cannabis community held its breath when Rutte presented the new coalition’s program in October 2017. Both Christian parties, CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal) and ChristenUnie, want to end the tolerating policy and close all coffee shops, while the D66 wants to fully legalize cannabis.
The tension between these very different views led to the weed experiment, as it is widely known; the official name of the project is the Closed Coffee Shop Chain Experiment. From the start, the government made it clear that the experiment would be limited to six to 10 cities. A scientific advisory commission, led by Professor André Knottnerus, was installed to monitor the experiment and write an advice report. Commission members had the rather daunting task of analyzing the Dutch cannabis industry, talking to a multitude of experts and representatives, and writing a comprehensive report — all within about four months.
Especially considering the brief time frame, the commission did admirable work. The Knottnerus report, published in June 2018, reflected the concerns of the industry, consumers and other stakeholders: There should be fewer limitations and more flexibility, coffee shops should not be forced to participate, and variety and quality are crucial to the success of the experiment. But when the government published the law proposal for the experiment last November, it became clear officials had no intention to heed the advice of the commission.
Meanwhile, a growing number of mayors were raising concerns about the experiment and the proposed rigid approach. In October, Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema wrote a letter to the ministers responsible, urging them to revise the plan to allow more cannabis strains and allow coffee shops to take part voluntarily. Eindhoven Mayor John Jorritsma told the city council in November that he had “few illusions about the progress” of the experiment. “I have the impression there’s some heel-dragging going on in The Hague,” Jorritsma said. “The longer it takes, the less I’m inclined to take part. There are so many conditions and limitations, that it makes no sense to speak of an experiment.”
Theo Weterings, mayor of Tilburg and spokesperson for the Association of Dutch Municipalities, told reporters that many cities are having second thoughts. “The question is whether we will even get 10 cities [that want to participate].” Cities close to the southern border with Belgium and the eastern border with Germany have an extra worry. If they chose to participate, the government wanted them to enforce the so-called residents criterium, which would force the coffee shops to refuse service to non-residents. Enforcing this rule has led to increased street dealing in the past, so most cities stopped enforcing it. And they would like to keep it that way.
Although the coffee shop owners prefer legalization over an experiment, they were initially willing to cooperate. However, this attitude changed after the government rejected most of the recommendations of the Knottnerus commission. One positive effect of the whole episode, however, is that it brought together at least part of the coffee shop industry. An umbrella organization called Cannabis Connect, established in 2016, now represents more than 250 of the 573 Dutch coffee shops.
Two national coffee shop unions, PCN and BCD, and the Epicurus foundation have joined forces under the Cannabis Connect umbrella. BCD chairman Joachim Helms, a longtime executive at the hugely successful Green House coffee shop chain, is Cannabis Connect’s face to the outside world. Joa, as he’s usually called, is easygoing, eloquent and amiable. When Cannabis Connect organized a trip for a group of coffee shop owners to visit three legal producers in Canada last March, he turned out to be a pretty good tour guide as well.
Cannabis Collect Gets Proactive
After years of neglect, the coffee shop industry is finally paying serious attention to public relations and political lobbying. Veteran cannabis researcher Nicole Maalsté and lobbyist Rutger-Jan Hebben, both connected to Epicurus, play a pivotal role in this process of professionalization. But the driving force is Bart Vollenberg, owner of two coffee shops in Flevoland, the province the Dutch created by reclaiming land from the former Zuiderzee bay. Vollenberg founded Epicurus in 2012 to get a professional cannabis lobby off the ground, ever since working tirelessly to raise awareness and unite his fellow coffee shop owners. “You are either sitting at the table or you’re on the menu,” he likes to point out.
On February 22, 2017, the day after the D66 cannabis law got a majority in the House of Representatives, Cannabis Connect hosted the largest gathering of coffee shop owners in known history at the Corso theater in The Hague, where more than 200 entrepreneurs discussed the future of the cannabis industry. They didn’t reach a consensus that day, but more meetings have followed, resulting in a set of principles for the experiments and the process toward regulation.
Last December, the government conducted an internet consultation for the weed experiment to gather input from interested parties. Cannabis Connect submitted a nine-page document with a detailed analysis and clear recommendations. Among its main concerns is the proposed abrupt transition from the current illegal growers to the new regulated ones. It also objects to the mandatory participation of all the coffee shops in the cities that will take part, and to the reintroduction of the residents criterium.
The coffee shops also worry about the proposed ban on selling imported hash at the participating venues — foreign hash still makes up about a quarter of sales in a typical Dutch coffee shop. Although a designated 10 regulated producers will be allowed to produce hash, coffee shops fear that customers will turn to the black market to buy the Moroccan, Afghan or Nepali hash they’ve grown accustomed to. It’s undeniable that hash produced in these traditional production countries is very different in taste, purity and effect from the modern bubble hash varieties produced in the West.
The alternative that Cannabis Connect suggests is as simple as it is pragmatic. They call it “phased implementation” — any coffee shop can join the experiment, and participating shops can maintain their current assortment while gradually adding new regulated cannabis products to the menu. If the consumer likes the new products, the shop can gradually phase out the old strains and hash varieties. It also suggests that growing permits should be available to both new and existing growers, to profit from their experience and to prevent dominance of a few big players.
Keeping Up With The Luxembourgs
One thing is certain: Things aren’t moving fast. The selection of cities to take part in the experiment was scheduled for November 2018, but it’s been delayed until the second quarter of 2019. By that time, there will be a newly elected Senate of the Netherlands, changing the power balance in The Hague. It’s possible that D66 will try to get its 2017 cannabis law through the new Senate, essentially rendering the weed experiment obsolete.
Another possible scenario is a breakdown of the government as a result of internal differences between the four parties, or Prime Minister Rutte accepting a job at the European Union. If the latter happens, a new government will likely cancel the experiment after seeing the amount of criticism it has received from all sides.
The House of Representatives is scheduled to debate the progress — or lack thereof — of the weed experiment on January 14. Member of parliament for the GreenLeft, Kathalijne Buitenweg fired a warning shot for that debate when she tweeted in early October: “The weed experiment was not set up as a step towards making the Netherlands safer and healthier, but as a lubricant to make D66 happy with this government.”
As if to emphasize the inefficiency of all the starts and stops, the new government of Luxembourg, the smallest EU member state, announced on December 3, 2018 that it will fully legalize cannabis. Together with Belgium and the Netherlands, Luxembourg is part of the Benelux, a politico-economic union pre-dating the EU. If Luxembourg will indeed become the first European country to fully legalize cannabis, the law of the inhibitory head start will again be proven — and Dutch politicians will have one more reason to hang their heads in shame.