Update on Dutch cannabis policy: what the hell is going on here?

In an update on Dutch cannabis policy, VOC spokesperson Derrick Bergman tries to answer the question why a country that is (in)famous the world over for its liberal cannabis policy, has adopted a zero tolerance, war on drugs style approach, just as the rest of the world is moving towards liberalization.

Update on Dutch cannabis policy

The time that the Netherlands was the world’s most progressive country with regards to cannabis has passed. Looking back, the change already set in around 1996, with the first so-called ‘Purple government’, meaning a government without Christian party CDA. At the time it seemed this government would take further steps towards legalization, but they didn’t, mostly because of foreign criticism, especially from France.

The ‘Purple government’ lowered the amount of cannabis you could buy at coffeeshops from 30 to 5 grams and raised the minimum age from 16 to 18. Ironically, the 5 gram maximum caused a lot more traffick of foreign coffeeshop visitors in the border regions, especially the Southern province of Limburg and it’s capital Maastricht.

Dutch justice minister Ivo Opstelten of 'liberal' party VVD (© Gonzo media)
Dutch justice minister Ivo Opstelten of 'liberal' party VVD (© Gonzo media)

In 1996 there were around 1500 coffeeshops, today there are only about 600 left, a third of them in Amsterdam. This was caused by tighter rules and regulations, like a total alcohol ban for coffeeshops and the ‘distance criterium’, a rule banning coffeeshop located within 250 meters of a school. The Dutch war on weed really got going when minister of justice Ivo Opstelten rose to power in 2010. In his former job, mayor of Rotterdam, he had closed down a large number of coffeeshops. As minister he came up with the infamous weedpass, a disastrous attempt to ban tourists from coffeeshops.

So why has a country that is (in)famous the world over for its liberal cannabis policy adopted a zero tolerance, war on drugs style approach, just as the rest of the world is moving towards liberalization? The answer may lie in ’The law of the handicap of a head start’, coined by Dutch historian Jan Romein in 1937. One of the examples he uses to explain this law are the street lights in London, one of the first cities in the world to introduce large scale street lighting. Electricity had not yet been invented, so the London street lights worked on gas. By the time other cities followed suit, electricity was readily available, so these cities installed electric street lights from the start. London’s head start turned out to be a handicap when it came to modernizing their system.

Cannabis coffeeshop in the heart of Amsterdam (© Gonzo media)
Cannabis coffeeshop in the heart of Amsterdam (© Gonzo media)

It’s a striking analogy to what has happened to Dutch cannabis policy. In 1976, Holland was the first country in the world to decriminalize use and possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use. To make this possible, a separation between cannabis products and other illegal drugs was introduced in the Opiumwet (Opium Law, dealing with all illegal drugs). This legal separation went hand in hand with a separation of drug markets. The goal was -and still is- to create an environment where people can buy cannabis safely, without being exposed to other illegal drugs with greater risks, like heroin and cocaine.

House dealers
To debunk a common misconception, still spread by today’s government: coffeeshops were never planned by the authorities. Early police guidelines were aimed at so called ’house dealers’, operating in subsidized youth centers like Paradiso and De Melkweg. It’s only thanks to smart and brave entrepreneurs that the coffeeshop as we know it today came into existence. This was more in spite of than thanks to the governments of the time.

Fast forward to 2014. The world has changed dramatically. Gone are the days that Holland was the only country with a liberal cannabis policy. The list of states that have decriminalized or legalized cannabis seems to grow every month: Uruguay, Denver, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, the Czech Republic… While we’re still struggling with gas powered street lights, these countries have chosen far more practical solutions.

VOC postcard: 'Cannabis? Don't criminalize, but regulate!'
VOC postcard: 'Cannabis? Don't criminalize, but regulate!'

15% thc maximum
The government’s proposal to limit the amount of thc in cannabis sold at coffeeshops to 15% seems to be the lowest point yet in the decline of Dutch policy. The fundamental separation between cannabis and drugs like heroin and crack will be gone if the government gets it’s way. Any weed or hash containing over 15% thc will be considered a hard drug. Coffeeshops offering ’strong cannabis’ will be closed down because of supplying ’hard drugs’. Peaceful cannabis growers can be persecuted like producers of meth and heroin.

The 15% thc measure has been postponed a few times and activists hope the government will fall before it reaches the Senate. The very foundation of modern Dutch drug policy is at stake. To make matters worse: the Raad van State, an important advisory council, gave it’s thumbs up to the tourist ban for coffeeshops this summer. They declared that banning non Dutch residents is a form of discrimination, but is nevertheless allowed to combat the evil of ’drug tourism’.

Anti weedpass poster by VOC
Anti weedpass poster by VOC

Justice minister Ivo Opstelten has always maintained that ’eventually’ all coffeeshops will have to ban non residents, including those in Amsterdam. At this moment however, only about 15% of all Dutch coffeeshops -those in the three Southern provinces- are forced to ban non residents. This ’North-South divide’ seems contrary to a credible and consistent national policy. That pretty much sums up the Dutch cannabis policy in the 21st century: the opposite of credible and consistent.

Growshop law
The most recent repressive measure, known as the ‘growshop law’, has been adopted by the Senate in November and goes into effect on March 1st, 2015. Any kind of preparation or assistance to “illegal cannabis production” will be punishable with a maximum of three years in jail. Labour party PvdA, who forms the government with liberal party VVD of mister Opstelten, voted against the law, but it still got a small majority. Although it seems very hard to enforce, it’s another step backwards.

Meanwhile, local governments are getting fed up with the bulldozer approach of justice minister Opstelten. 54 mayors have signed a manifesto, “Joint Regulation”, calling for the regulation of the backdoor of the coffeeshop. The so-called “backdoor problem” is the biggest paradox of the cannabis policy: coffeeshops are allowed to sell cannabis under strict conditions, but any wholesale buying or producing is strictly forbidden. For over 35 years, the government has been pretending that the cannabis that coffeeshops sell, comes falling out of the sky every day.

Beeld: www.encod.org
Beeld: www.encod.org

Cannabis Social Clubs
Pressure on the government is mounting to finally resolve this paradox and regulate production. As long as mister Opstelten is in power, this will probably not happen. The good news is that we have our first active Cannabis Social Club since this year, the Tree of Life in Amsterdam. Cannabis Social Clubs are non-profit citizens collectives that produce and distribute organically grown cannabis to its members in a closed, transparent system. Joep Oomen, coordinator of Encod (European coalition for just and effective drug policies) that promotes the Cannabis Social Club model, recently wrote about the Tree of Life:

“Founded in September of this year, the CSC forms a huge challenge to municipal authorities, who are now facing a dilemma: acting against the club with about 25 members would create a ridiculous situation, since already in Amsterdam there are hundreds of coffeeshops which get their cannabis from the illegal market, while tolerating their existence would bring them into conflict with Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten, who is opposing any relaxation of the restrictive policy towards cannabis cultivation.”

Doede de Jong speaking at Cannabis Liberation Day 2014, Flevopark, Amsterdam (© Gonzo media)
Doede de Jong speaking at Cannabis Liberation Day 2014, Flevopark, Amsterdam (© Gonzo media)

The Cannabis Social Club might well be the crowbar that allows local governments to experiment with regulation, no matter what the minister of justice says. Activists in the cities of Eindhoven, Utrecht and Groningen are busy setting up Cannabis Social Clubs as we speak. Like before with the coffeeshops, the change will come from brave individuals at the grassroots level, not from the politicians.

Groningen verdict
Chances of success have grown with a groundbreaking verdict by the court in Groningen. On October 6th, 2014, the judge declared a couple, John and Ines from Bierum, guilty of growing cannabis for two coffeeshops, but gave them no punishment, because they worked as safe and transparent as they could. The judge stated that production is an “implicit part” of the coffeeshop policy. The prosecutor has appealed the verdict; if it’s approved by the Supreme Court (“Hoge Raad”) this verdict will be a real game changer.

For Doede de Jong, Holland’s best known cannabis grower and one of VOC’s most prominent activists, there is a lot at stake. The Dutch state wants Doede to pay over €230.000, based on a ridiculous calculation of alleged profits. If the verdict stands he will loose the farm he and his family have been living on for forty years. The Groningen verdict could save him, but at the moment things are looking bleak. Visit www.steundoede.nl (Dutch) for more information on Doede’s case and ways to support him.

Cannabis Liberation Day 2014, Amsterdam (Foto © BROEK)
Cannabis Liberation Day 2014, Amsterdam (Foto © BROEK)

Support VOC
Since 2008 the VOC, a non-profit platform of Dutch citizens opposed to cannabis prohibition, mobilizes consumers and influences public opinion and politicians. We defend free access of adults to cannabis in coffeeshops and promote legalization. We organize Cannabis Liberation Day, the biggest cannabis event in the Netherlands. The seventh edition takes place on June 14, 2015, in Amsterdam.

We need your help
The VOC depends on donations from consumers and companies to keep the pressure on, save our cannabis culture and make sure tourists will remain welcome in the coffeeshops. You can follow us on Twitter (@vocnederland) and/or donate online by clicking here and following the instructions. Thanks for your support!

Comments (10)

  • Michael Hadden 30/11/2014 at 1:37 am Reply

    An absolutely excellent report, and I recommend it to all with an interest in the Dutch coffeeshop,etc. Back in the early 1990’s, I communicated with a Professor from UvA: Peter Cohen. He is now retired, and it seems his research conclusions regarding the Dutch coffeeshop has fallen away from the core issues in the current debate described. From decades of his data it appears that “ever-tried-heroin” rates collapsed to zero under govt coffeeshop policy – and subsequently stayed at his reported “0.0%”. Cohen describes this as the “coffeehop-effect” and it appears again in the Jellineck drug treatment data as: numbers of addicts falling by about 15% a year – and average age increasing about a year, every year and for decades. This is all rock solid bio-statistical evidence of NO new addicts, suitable for courts of law to support the case that Dutch coffeeshops act like an “innoculation” against the “illness” that starts with starting to use drugs like heroin.
    These, the most substantial data possible, grind to an end after 1995 and what is a now a war on cannabis. From the data, it is beyond doubt that using drugs like heroin will increase; addicts in treatment increase; and fatal overdose numbers increase. But don’t believe my hype, go find that recent data that I can no longer find in my english language, and do your own comparisons. Best Wishes, Max Harmreduction

  • furia 03/12/2014 at 7:57 am Reply

    thinking who controll afgan fields recently , mby they dont want less heroin addicts ?

  • Chris 03/12/2014 at 5:42 pm Reply

    An excellent article – thank you Mr Bergman. But I’d like to know why the so-called liberal Dutch are standing by and letting Mr Opstelten have his way regarding cannabis policy. There doesn’t seem to be any credible political opposition to Opstelten on this issue (apart from the odd city mayor – but they are more or less powerless). Why has Dutch politics allowed this to happen?

  • maxwood 04/12/2014 at 11:38 pm Reply

    Western Germany and France have large populations of Catholics whom the Pope doesn’t want to see converted to Cannabis Liberalism on a visit to NL, therefore not surprisingly big French and German politicians bully Dutch politicians over Cannabis (remember Adolf’s emissary, Franz von Papen– friends of the Pope? Remember 1940, Blitzkrieg, puppet government, KZ-Lager?). Therefore walk the fine line, pursue double policy.

  • TheOracle 06/12/2014 at 4:23 pm Reply

    Opstelten may very well be hardline prohibitionist or a very clever closet legalizer. There have been complaints that, like the U.S., the rabid prohibitionist European countries have for a long time been living in a state of denial about their own citizens’ cannabis consumption and have thus outsourced the demand by the, let’s say, German, French, and Belgian cannabis community just as the U.S. outsourced the supply to its demand, which is still mainly being supplied by Mexico. That is until recent years when some states have legalized medical marijuana, and more recently when some states (and DC) legalized adult recreational cannabis. In short, this could be part of a Dutch political position to force their neighboring countries to legalize and supply their own cannabis community’s demand by making it illegal for non-residents to buy in Limburgse kofieshops, by making it a huge pain in the ass for foreignors to drive farther into the heartland of The Netherlands to coffeeshops in provinces where they can freely buy cannabis like any other commodity. Luxembourg is long known for undercutting the prices of its neighbor, and a case in point is the small city of Wasserbillig at the Luxembourg-Geman border, where Germans go in droves for the cheaper petrol/gasoline, cheaper cigarettes, booze and whatever. That’s just one example. Of course, neighboring governments have been bitching for decades that Luxembourg is a tax haven, a place for people to stick their money at a lower taxed rate. Lots of people would be put out of work if Grevenmacher District would make it illegal for non-residents, just like lots of people in the coffeeshop sector got put out of work went the change went into effect in Limburg. And, now Limburg wants more money for policing the street crime and organized crime that has resulted from driving the sales to non-residents back into the underground, invisible non-taxed economy. Let us hope that the neighboring countries embrace legalization and supply the demand to their own countries’ cannabis communities. Let’s have some sanity.

  • virfoolio 11/12/2014 at 11:44 am Reply

    Last Friday the Police visited (and then searched) my residence here in the North Holland Region.

    I was in the process of moving some grow equipment from the house to a van, which was lawfully rented and duly parked on the street (engine off and no one on the driver’s seat). A police car suddenly appeared on the bike lane and parked right in front the van so as to block it. Two officers, an older woman and a younger man dropped out of the car asking me, and the guy who was helping me, what we were doing. I explained I lived there and I was packing some personal belongings in view of my forthcoming move out of said house.

    Without clearly identifying himself or his older colleague, he asked me to open the van. When he saw the soil bags piled in the vehicle he asked me what the soil was for. I replied that I like growing basil and peppers indoor. Overall, I pointed out that as of that date (5 December 2014) it was perfectly legal to possess indoor growing hardware in the Netherlands. While the older officer identified me (she took my Dutch driver’s licence), the younger cop informed me that they asked their chief to join them with a formal document allowing them to access the premises. I asked why? He replied that they suspected I had cannabis plants in the house. I repeatedly pointed out that there were no cannabis plants in the house. I was explained that they received a call from a neighbour who suspected I was growing cannabis in said house.

    While waiting for the Police Chief, at least four plain-clothes officers showed up, together with at least 6 other police officers in uniform. While I was forced to wait in the cold during the whole process, the younger officer asked me about a wooden panel sporting two holes. I said that I was exercising my cutting skills on a cheap wooden panel.

    Eventually the Police Chief arrived but, before showing me the warrant to search my residence, he had a private chat with the younger officer so that I could not hear what they were saying to each other. I was showed this two-page form based on the Opiumwet, but I was not given a copy of such document, notwithstanding my strong insistencies.

    I opened the door and showed the officers that no plants were in the house but, instead of leaving the premises immediately, they spent 45 minutes searching, opening boxes, taking pictures (with the younger officer’s personal i-Phone), asking questions. When I asked why they were taking pictures of my place, the younger officer replied that with that document “they could do whatever they wanted”. After being totally cooperative I was asked and then forced to wait at the door while the younger officer and the Chief of Police spent 13 minutes alone in the upper floors of the house. I protested that I did not approve of police officers to freely move around in my house without being able to check on what they were doing. The two young officers guarding me on the door repeated that “with the document we showed you we can ask you to wait here and you must comply” …

    When the chief and the young officer finally exited the house, the former told me that the latter would explain me. The younger officer then showed me a small amount of cannabis flowers (much less than 5 grams) in a latex glove and , after taking my driver’s licence from the older officer, said the following:

    I found this cannabis upstairs and I am seizing it. We do not arrest you now but we all know what this gear is intended for. From the 1st of January it will be illegal to possess this material in the Netherlands, so if we come back after the first of January and find this equipment we will arrest you …

    At this point I insisted that it was perfectly legal to possess that material and I reiterated the request for the authorization, which was denied again as this officer and the Chief insisted that it would be mailed to me in the days to come.

    The following day Irealised that I was missing my driver’s licence but since I had a messy house I thought I would find it in the process of tiding the house up. It did not happen! On Wednesday, December the 10th, I thus personally showed up at the Police headquarters, close to the Koog Zaandijk station. I explained the situation to the officers at the reception, gave them a copy of the driver’s licence and my passport and waited for something to happen. After 15 minutes they told me that the officer that was in charge of the search was not in the premises and asked me to leave my phone number assuring me that I would be contacted by the young officer.

    THIS IS MADNESS!!!!!!!!

  • virfoolio 11/12/2014 at 11:50 am Reply

    Of course I have not been contacted by anyone so far.

    I find this rather shameful. Is there any rule of law in this sorry cou try(side)?

  • Michael Hadden 13/12/2014 at 9:10 am Reply

    I had a deja-vu experience reading the virfolio report. I was 18 (now66) when cannabis prohibition started here in Brisbane – we could not believe what was happening either. From then on we had lots of different harder drugs offered by shady people… It ended with a heroin epidemic – the same heroin epidemic that started at the same time in the Netherlands. Maybe our “cannabis-prohibition-effect” will repeat itself in NL – maybe its already happening – but drug substitution is the rule in history, not the exception.

  • Bob 12/03/2015 at 1:05 pm Reply

    As a long time resident in NL I am now allowed to vote in NL elections such as the one on 18/3/2015. Are there any political parties that support the ending of drug prohibition ie of proper drug regulation/licencing etc?

  • webmaster 12/03/2015 at 3:24 pm Reply

    Yes, there are. The following parties are in favour of full legalization:
    Partij voor de Dieren

    These parties want to regulate production for coffeeshops, but not for homegrowers or Cannabis Social Clubs:

    Whatever you do, don’t vote these prohibitionist parties:

    Kind regards,
    Derrick Bergman / VOC

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