Holland’s Quandary: Coffeeshop Culture in 2016


At Amsterdam's Cannabis College

At Amsterdam's Cannabis College

The working day of a coffeeshop manager in Amsterdam is a hectic one. In addition to serving the steady stream of customers who visit his shop, Mo has to meet with suppliers and drive back and forth across the city, transporting his wares from his stash house to his place of business.

Mo’s shop, Happy Days, is a small one in the south of Amsterdam. Coffeeshops are free to operate here, so long as they refrain from advertising, causing a “nuisance,” selling hard drugs or large amounts of pot, and selling cannabis to minors.

However, all of the weed that Mo does sell is illegally sourced. “I meet [the dealer] somewhere quiet, do the deal and then stash the weed in a different location,” he says. This is a necessary precaution, since the coffeeshops can have no more than 500 grams on their premises at any one time—and the police make sure this rule is obeyed with random inspections.

“Every coffeeshop owner is a criminal,” Mo tells me. “The current laws mean that I have to drive across the city transporting the weed and hash with no license to do so. It’s impossible to work normally this way, and I’m more scared of the police than the dealers I buy from.”

But in the Netherlands at present, there’s no alternative to sourcing cannabis illegally. While Dutch policy allows the coffeeshops to sell pot, cultivation remains illegal. “I’d like to see things change—a lot,” says Mo. “It’s not easy to run a company this way.”

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Much of the Netherlands’ cannabis comes from the southern province of Brabant, where illegal growers—many of them working for organized crime—produce an estimated 1 billion euros’ worth annually.

As well as yielding some 340 tons of cannabis each year, the open farmland of Brabant is home to much of the country’s methamphetamine and Ecstasy production. Last year, the police shut down 14 labs and 30 storage points.

For the better part of two decades, Dutch law enforcement has maintained a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding where the coffeeshops source their cannabis. Large-scale grow ops are most definitely illegal, but the police usually won’t press a coffeeshop owner to reveal his or her suppliers. Growers, however, will usually be prosecuted to the full extent of the law if they get caught.

“The current system, in which you can sell cannabis but not grow it, is unsustainable,” declared Magda Berndsen, a member of the Dutch Parliament, last year. “It ensures high health risks, costs too much police capacity and is a threat to public safety.”

Heads in the Sand

Many people here think the government isn’t doing enough to resolve this dilemma. Berndsen, a member of the progressive political party known as Democraten 66 (D66 for short), says: “Local administrators have called on the government and Parliament to introduce a national system of certified and regulated hemp. But the government doesn’t listen to the mayors and does nothing to solve local problems.”

In fact, 41 municipalities have endorsed a manifesto calling for cannabis cultivation to be legalized and regulated, and 25 have applied to the Dutch minister of justice for permission to experiment with legal cultivation and supply. To date, the government hasn’t approved a single one of these applications. But in a poll taken last year, 70 percent of the Dutch people surveyed supported legalizing cannabis cultivation, and only 5 percent thought that cracking down on growers should be a police priority.

Berndsen estimates that legalizing and regulating the supply side of the cannabis industry could net the Dutch government 500 million euros annually: 200 million in savings from the police and courts system, and 300 million from a tax on legal weed. One need only look to Colorado for an example: In 2015 alone, the state collected nearly $100 million from its marijuana sales tax, licenses and fees.

Local Knowledge

Of course, Colorado’s marijuana policy differs sharply from that of the US government. The United States is just beginning to shake off the hangover of its failed War on Drugs. In the Netherlands, local governments and judiciaries have worked within the country’s ambiguous federal laws to try and shape drug policy to meet the unique needs of their areas. For example, when the government proposed implementing a “weed pass” in 2011—which would have allowed only registered Dutch smokers to patronize the coffeeshops—it was blasted by the mayors of the Netherlands’ four largest cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht.

The proposal was shelved by the coalition government in 2012, but the “weed pass” was intended to regulate only the “front door” of the nation’s coffeeshops, whose supply was still being provided by illegal growers coming in through the back. However, in other encouraging news, Dutch judges are becoming more flexible in their application of the country’s cannabis laws.

Enter the Altruists
Needless to say, not every cultivator in the Netherlands has ties to organized crime: Some supply local coffeeshops with high-quality cannabis, grown organically and without stolen electricity or connections to criminal gangs. These people have been dubbed “altruistic growers.”

In 2014, a middle-age couple in Groningen province were pardoned by a district judge, who recognized that the couple had been running an illegal pot plantation but were altruistic growers who had acted with a high regard for public safety and the health of consumers. (Last year, public prosecutors appealed that ruling, and the couple received a three-month suspended jail sentence.)

“These were people who decided a long time ago that Dutch cannabis policy was untenable in its current state,” says Sidney Smeets, the couple’s lawyer. “They grew in a very respectful way—all organic and with no pesticides. They only sold to licensed coffeeshops and paid their taxes.

“We had to argue vehemently for the pardon, but the judge followed our argument,” Smeets adds. “We’ve always argued that the lack of courage in Dutch politics to provide fitting regulation … shouldn’t be something that normal Dutch citizens get punished for.”

In another high-profile case last year, cannabis activist and altruistic grower Doede de Jong was found guilty of large-scale cultivation but was pardoned on appeal. The court recognized, as it had in the case of the Groningen couple, that de Jong provided a safe and honest alternative to the cannabis being grown by organized criminal groups.

“If politicians won’t make adequate laws, then judges shouldn’t convict people based on inadequate laws,” Smeets asserts. “But some judges are more lenient than others.”

Where to Go From Here?
The Cannabis College, in the middle of Amsterdam’s Red-Light District, is a tourist attraction and information center. There, staff member Tam provides a brief history of Dutch drug policy to curious visitors and makes his case against prohibition, all while offering hits from his vaporizer.

“Policy should be developed based on real-life experience—but at the moment, that’s not happening,” Tam says. “I believe that if there’s an unjust law, you have an obligation to break it.”

Last year, the D66 party brought “draft legislation” to Parliament seeking to exempt pot growers from current drug laws—a small step toward legalization. D66 has been pushing to reform the Netherlands’ cannabis policy for years, while Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten has consistently refused to sanction any form of legalized and regulated pot.

Until that changes, Mo will still have to source his weed from illegal cultivators; the altruistic growers will still need sharp lawyers and sympathetic judges to stay out of prison; and Tam will still be preaching about breaking unjust laws. And as other countries, including the United States, Mexico, Chile and Uruguay, liberalize their own cannabis laws, the Dutch policy of “tolerance”—once a model for the rest of the world—will come to look more and more antiquated.

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