Over the course of the 27th Cannabis Cup, we spoke with four stalwart members of the Dutch cannabis scene for their perspective on the changes in Holland. Although they’re disturbed by recent developments, Wernard Bruining, Ben Dronkers, Nol van Schaik and Simon of Serious Seeds remain optimistic that their nation will return to the forefront of the commercial cannabis industry.
Wernard Bruining opened Amsterdam’s first coffeeshop, Mellow Yellow, in 1973. His grow shop, Positronics, was the first in Europe. He now champions marijuana oil as nature’s best medicine.
You’re the founder of the coffeeshop scene, correct?
At least in Amsterdam—but I was doing it because I thought it was the most logical thing to do. In the old days, it was rather difficult to score hash and grass. You had to either know somebody who was a house dealer—dealing it from his house—or you had to go places where a lot of smokers would be.
Tell us about Mellow Yellow.
It was 1973. We were living together, a group of nine friends in a house—in a room. We were all smokers. In the old days, when you knew where you could score hash, you would buy some and sell it to friends so you could have some for free. So we had a lot of friends come over to our house and buy hash. That was all we were doing—we were hippies. And we would always present them with a cup of tea. It was a standard joke: “Let’s start a teahouse or a coffeeshop—we can make some money and get stoned at the same time!”
How did the city react when you opened Mellow Yellow?
Not at all. We were fucking careful. Tolerance works when you are very careful. When you say, “Oh, we’re having a coffeeshop where you can buy hash and grass,” you’re closed the next day.
That was 1973. Later came the Bulldog, but we were the first modern coffeeshop. We also had the golden coffeeshop formula: One of us would sit at the bar pretending to be a customer, because the police could arrest the customer but not close down the coffeeshop. So one of us would sit at the bar pretending he was a customer—with a big leather bag. It’s now in the Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam, by the way. We had varieties of hash and grass, all pre-bagged in plastic bags. That was new, because in those days hash was wrapped in aluminum foil. You couldn’t see what was in it; you had to trust the dealer. But we pre-bagged it so you could see what was in it. We valued at the same price: 10 or 25 guilders. That meant anybody could come into our shop and be assured of the quality and a fair and right price.
Right now, the number of coffeeshops is being reduced in Amsterdam.
At the height of the coffeeshop scene, there were probably 1,500—in Amsterdam, about 600. Amsterdam always has a special vibe, but anything you do there is magnified. The authorities always try to control the free atmosphere that radiates from Amsterdam. The authorities don’t like people to have a free mind and a free spirit. They want to control the spirit. What distinguishes man from animals is freedom of mind and freedom to decide. Free will—that is a God-given thing. The authorities—or the wrong kind of authorities—try to take that away from people by means of religion or politics or ethics or whatever. It’s a constant struggle between the people who want freedom—spiritual freedom—and the authorities who try and control that freedom.
Will the pendulum swing back, so to speak?
Yes, yes. As they focus on Amsterdam, there are other sections of Holland that they’re not looking at… for instance, Haarlem. It’s like a sanctuary—very liberal, very free. There are 16 coffeeshops, controlled by a board formed by the police, local authorities, people from the coffeeshops themselves, people like me and drug counselors. They set up rules, and coffeeshops apply or act according to those rules. They get a permit from the Haarlem municipality. Coffeeshops are no longer raided by police and are allowed to have whatever amounts in the coffeeshop. That’s the way it should be—and in the 16 years of coffeeshops in Haarlem, the police never have any problem. No violence, no nothing.
Are you proud of your legacy?
I’m still surprised that people think it’s so important. It’s no longer interesting for me. You can fight the authorities as long as you live, but they never give in. In military terms, the smart thing is to go around them. Coffeeshops are important, but what I’m doing now is more important than what I ever did before in the cannabis scene.
I have a cannabis clinic. When your mother, your father, your uncle is using marijuana oil, you win the war. That’s what Mediwiet is about.
Tell us about Mediwiet.
I began to make hash or marijuana oil the same way Rick Simpson did. I found out two things: First, it’s difficult and dangerous the way he’s doing it, with the rice steamer. In his movie, he says, “Don’t try this at home.” Where should you do it, then?
The other thing—once it’s made, you put it in a syringe. But then you have to get it out, which is difficult because marijuana oil is like thick, black peanut butter. You only need a drop the size of a grain of rice. I tried and, instead of a drop, much more came out. I didn’t want to waste any, so I scooped it up and then just put my finger in my mouth, as I saw people do in the movie. Fifteen minutes later, I was so high.
I realized two things: I needed to find out how to produce it and distribute it, because you can’t advise that to old or sick people. And you can’t give it to children if you have no control over strength. What I do is dilute it with olive oil and put it in a dripper bottle so you can take one drop exactly.
What do you find this effective for?
Almost everything—Parkinson’s, chronic pain, sleeping problems …. Ninety-five percent of my patients have never seen hash or grass. They have no experience, but these are the people that you need to turn on. The problem with cannabis is fear and the lack of knowledge.
Are mainstream researchers friendly to Mediwiet?
No—and I don’t want them around. I don’t want to waste my energy persuading scientific people or doctors or whatever. I focus my energy on helping people. The endocannabinoid system controls everything in a living creature—human, animal or whatever. There are 120 different cannabinoids; all have a function and have interactions. In the next 20 to 40 years, we’ll find out what the effect of each is and what the interactions will be. I think, in the future, it will be possible to analyze a drop of blood from a person, and a computer will tell you which of those 120 pure cannabinoids will help. In 10 years, we’ll see a complete new way of medicating that I call “cannabinoid-based medication.” It will be a whole new way of approaching medication.
There are maybe 10,000 synthetic medications, but there is no medication available that just makes people feel better—just be in a better mood. When you can give people something that makes them feel better, that’s half the battle won against somebody’s disease. People have a very big healing capacity, but they need to be in a good mood. A good mood triggers our self-healing capacity.
How do you perceive the struggle for cannabis legalization?
[Laughing] I always say I came from another planet to change things on this planet called Earth. And I’m doing that—that’s my job.
I always look at people on this planet with some sort of astonishment. I wonder why do they act so stupid—why do people let others manipulate them? They have this God-given ability to create their own reality. That’s their freedom. Why do they give that away by obeying authorities, by obeying priests or religion or whatever?
Years ago, I thought if you give them something to smoke, you can change their mind. That’s what happened to me. I wanted to become a teacher; I wanted to teach school. But after the second year or so, I started smoking cannabis. Then I knew I didn’t want to be part of this system that trains people to obey. I’m still a teacher, but in a different way.
Ben Dronkers is the founder of the Sensi Seed Bank, HempFlax, and the Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum.
Is cannabis becoming less tolerated in Holland?
It’s an up-and-down thing. When we started, it was quite tolerated. We have to thank the minister of health at that time, Irene Vorik—she said people should not be persecuted for it. People started to smoke and there were festivals, so they let it go. Then coffeeshops came and there was more tolerance.
But then, up and down: Politicians, now they’re obliged to say it’s unhealthy, like the THC content. But that’s politicians. We thought we had a very liberal government—at this moment, liberals are in power. How liberal are they? Well, not really.
Does this upset you?
Cannabis is something that will be harder and harder for them to denounce, especially with medical marijuana now. It’s more and more international, what we see happening—in Colorado, in Uruguay. You’ve got the Transform Drug Policy Foundation supported by Richard Branson and the rest, and [former UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan is supporting it. So it’s happening … slowly.
You’re one of the pioneers of the Dutch coffeeshop scene. What’s it like to be a leader in the cannabis industry?
When I grew my first plants, I loved it: I wanted to grow more and do more of it. They’ve busted me many times. And I couldn’t stop, even when they put me in jail. The judge says, “You don’t do it again, right?” and I say, “It will be hard, but I’ll try not to do it.” But, you know, I couldn’t stop. So many miracles come out of this plant.
What has the impact of Sensi Seeds been?
We had the good seeds; everybody loved them and took them everywhere. I always say, in the Drug War, we bombard the world with seeds. We have the Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum, the info center and Cannabis College. We have a melting pot of cannabis knowledge here.
Do you remain optimistic about the prospect of legal cannabis?
Very much. It’s easy to get negative once in a while. What happened with the Cannabis Cup was very negative, and it can make people negative. But we should try to bend it over to the positive side.
I remember a debate with some Christian fundamentalists, an anti-marijuana group. I said, “Tell me what’s wrong with marijuana. Tell me one reason why marijuana is forbidden—only one reason!” They never could give it. I’m still waiting for someone to prove what can be wrong with it. Is it wrong that hemp can pull pollution out of the soil? This is a healing plant. What this plant has brought into my life in the last 40-something years is so amazing.
Nol van Schaik is the founder and owner of the Willie Wortel coffeeshops in Haarlem, and he also opened the first coffeeshop in Stockport, UK, in 2001. He is the author of The Dutch Experience, which covers 30 years of coffeeshop history.
How do you see your place in the Dutch coffeeshop scene?
I’m more of an activist than a pioneer. Ben and Wernard and other people are the pioneers. I only opened my coffeeshop in 1991—Willie Wortel’s Workshop. They wanted to close me, so I had to defend myself; I had to stand up for what I was doing. I survived the police, the city, the landlords, the tax office—everybody who wanted to close me down and get me out of the building. So by making me stand up for what I believe in, they made me good at it. I decided to keep pushing, and I found out that if you keep arguing with them and give them good arguments, they start listening to you. So instead of just defending myself, I started to push for legalization and push for better government to get more things done our way.
You’ve certainly led an extraordinary life. How would you describe your beginnings?
I grew up as the oldest of seven kids. My father was drunk every day, so I’ve always been somebody who had to take care of things for other people. Maybe, genetically, I’m somebody who takes the lead—let’s put it that way. At 23, I opened a gym. I went bankrupt twice, ended up in prison. Then I started working construction again, and I was asked to do some refurbishing in a coffeeshop deal for these guys. Then I decided to start my own coffeeshop. I was 38.
Do you think those first 38 years prepared you, in some way, for the coffeeshop industry?
If I like something, I’ll become a fanatic about it. Like, I started as a fitness trainer in a bodybuilding gym—then I started my own gym and became the national coach. But I was spending too much time on that. It was a volunteer job; I didn’t get paid.
Then my partner made a few mistakes at the gym, and I went bankrupt. I robbed a bank and ended up in prison. But I paid my debts—I did four years, and that was a great lesson. I became chairman of the inmate federation; I got my business diploma, my certificates in English, Spanish and German. I made the best out of a situation.
Have you encountered resistance because of your personal history?
Everybody knows about my history—I never hide it. Everybody can make a mistake, but I think everybody is entitled to a second chance. I didn’t need a third chance, you know?
What’s your take on the current coffeeshop scene?
Amsterdam will never get rid of it … that’s because it’s Amsterdam. In Haarlem, we are more or less the model for the Netherlands. We have one coffeeshop for 10,000 inhabitants. That’s pretty tight, but we like money. We’re the only union that’s complete. We act together—that’s why we get things done.
I want to be called a businessman—no longer a criminal. But I’m being called a criminal because I have to deal with criminals. Growers are criminals. The small growers have been discouraged because, if you grow in your house, they can throw you out in the street. People don’t want to take the risk anymore. We used to hear that Holland had 80 percent weed exports. But now I’m buying it from Germany and Belgium, because I can hardly find it here anymore. They killed a pretty good system.
But we can do it. We’re asking for indoor growing—for security reasons, of course—and for growing in greenhouses. And once a season, to do our own hash production, so we can stop the flight of capital to foreign countries completely.
Simon is the breeder behind Serious Seeds, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary. Serious Seeds is responsible for championship strains like the Chronic, AK-47 and Kali Mist.
What’s your proudest achievement at Serious Seeds?
Our strains, obviously. Compared to other seed companies, we only have a few. But the names of those strains are so well known that we constantly have to fight against copycats—those selling their seeds using our names.
What is your personal feeling about cannabis?
I think this plant, how do you say, is like a blessing … a blessing for humanity. It’s fantastic, this plant—it gives so much to humanity. Humanity without cannabis goes nowhere, you know.
How do you view the Dutch coffeeshop industry?
I see an industry that is doing its best to organize in a good way, to do the best things possible. But they face stupid rules. The government makes life difficult: If you break one of those rules, you can be severely punished and closed. The rules don’t serve any other purpose than lowering the number of coffeeshops. This is nationwide, not just in Amsterdam.
Will it get worse?
Maybe in the short term. Ivo Opstelten, the minister of justice wants to go down in the history books as the one who kept cannabis from becoming legal in the Netherlands. Several countries have overtaken us in the acceptance of cannabis, like the States. We were once ahead of the whole crowd, showing how it could be done.
We have a couple of dumbo politicians. Other politicians went into coalition with them. They come up with stupid laws, and the coalition is forced to back them. It costs us a lot of money. People become unemployed. And there are only more troubles now. Boys driving around on little scooters, selling illegal drugs to tourists—only bad consequences. The laws serve absolutely no purpose.
What would be the ideal situation for the Dutch cannabis industry?
Growing our own weed under controlled circumstances. We are forced to do business with criminals because they’re the ones who are growing. In Holland, you can grow up to five plants of your own in the garden, if you grow without any technical needs—water by hand, no artificial lighting, no artificial anything. If you’re a non-professional, you can do that. But it’s not the weed you see in the coffeeshops.
The mayors of 54 different cities signed a treaty: They want to start an experiment that deals with cannabis farming for commercial purposes. Recently, two growers in the far north were caught growing cannabis—large-scale. They have been found guilty, but they didn’t get any penalties because they did it in the way that many mayors, many people and many coffeeshops—and the whole Justice Department—would like to see: They didn’t steal electricity, and they paid tax on income. So they didn’t get any penalty because they did it in this way. Now the case is waiting for the next step: to see if the judge of the higher court will back us up.
There are also several cases awaiting coffeeshops who have had more than the allowed amount [500 grams] on their premises. It’s crazy for them to work with only 500 grams. A constant supply of new weed must be brought in from not too far away. They have spaces to store it, and the police found this out and made a case. According to the system, those coffeeshops didn’t live up to the rules. But, logically, 500 grams is not enough for a day—or even a few hours. They constantly had to bring in new weed.
The coffeeshops try their best: They talk to local authorities, the mayor, the police. They’ve been doing this for years … now you take them to court? And they’re found guilty, but they don’t get any penalty because they try their best. There are several cases like that. C’mon, do something! But I think the Justice Department is sort of tired. As a whole, it says: “Go and arrange it in a good way. We’re tired of you guys now.”
We have a coffeeshop system. It has been shown to be a good thing: There are fewer junkies, and there are not higher amounts of young people smoking cannabis. There are no bad results from the coffeeshop system.