It is never easy being green. However, the cannabis industry is no stranger to overcoming stigma if not hurdles. Much less the grotesque ball drops of governments as soon as they get involved—from expanding access to basic regulation.
The Dutch government has just been handed a reminder of that as its widely lauded first cultivation bid for the production of regulated recreational cannabis has embarrassingly hit the skids. It is not even something that can be blamed on COVID-19. Nor does it appear that the Dutch took any lessons from the highly controversial German cannabis tender for medical cultivation in 2017 which has yet to fully come online.
Holland is a sovereign country with 2 million fewer inhabitants than the U.S. state of New York.
What gives? How could the land of the coffeeshop fumble the ball quite so badly?
A Brief History Of The Regulated Dutch Cannabis Industry
For American Gen Xers at least, Holland became a beacon of cannasanity during the 1980’s and 1990’s. This was a period of time where particularly American Baby Boomers who had inhaled with impunity when they were in their much-heralded youth, decided to further criminalize the plant and those who grew, used, or sold it as they obtained positions of political power.
Drug testing became the bane of anyone who wanted employment in the United States.
In Europe, things were better, but only just. You can still get arrested for the possession, consumption, or selling of the drug. Just ask Spanish club owners during COVID-19. But drug testing never caught on, nor did the obscene extremes of the Drug War seen in the United States.
As a result, there is a highly profitable if not widespread “underground” if you can call it that—from the mafia and terror-linked groups to entrepreneurially minded patients with growing space and a few friends. Far beyond Holland, there are, for example, plenty of German magazines if not a whole subculture based on home cultivation that has certainly begun to organize for bigger things over the last several years as medical use has become legal here.
Plus if you really wanted to light up in public, you could always take a visa-free trip just across a border or two if you had no connected friends and did not like “shopping” in the Hauptbahnhof viertel (central train station section of town) of your local burg. In Germany, at least, this is where you find both the regulated sex trade and of course, plenty of opportunities to buy illicit substances of all kinds.
The Dutch authorities were not unaware of the situation. Indeed, various failed attempts to control the popularity of cannatourism were all tried and failed. These included trying to shut down the industry in border towns (particularly with Germany), to imposing stricter regulations in the places where the industry operated. See Amsterdam of both yesteryear and as of January 2021.
None of these attempts during the first decade and a half of the 21st Century were successful, although they created casualties of the justified and unjustified kind. For example, by 2014, such attentions and crack downs had begun to close down coffee shops in every city that operated within the immediate vicinity of schools. There are about half as many stores today in Amsterdam as there were just at the turn of the century. The other (international) victim was the famed Cannabis Cup competition.
However, this did not solve the bigger issues. The coffee shops still in operation had to find produce and products somewhere—and while their shop fronts may have reduced in number, sales volume was up and not just because other coffee shops had closed. There was suddenly an uptick of domestic users. Until 2017, there was also a healthy domestic medical market, segmented from the coffee shop trade, because Dutch insurers were still reimbursing cannabis prescriptions from local patients. The fact that this ended just as the German insurance industry was forced to cover medical cannabis claims meant that Dutch patients were also then forced into the coffee shops close to four years ago. Indeed, as of now, the formally, medically regulated Dutch medical industry is overwhelmingly focused on exports. If it were not for Bedrocan, the oldest privately owned cultivator in the world, the repeated errors of the German bid would have removed most of the medical flos still in apothekes (pharmacies) today.
Outlawing the domestic Dutch cultivation of cannabis, in other words, was never on the cards. The problem is still how to bring in the legitimate production of recreational, non GMP cannabis out of the grey area and into formal legality.
A New Bid To Rule Them All?
In the aftermath of the German cultivation bid (which ended up in court twice before being settled in 2019), Dutch authorities tried a new tact. They would copy the idea from across the border in Germany (sans fluff ups of course) and try to begin to regulate national recreational cultivation.
Indeed between July 1-28 of 2020, the Dutch government held an open call for companies interested in obtaining one of ten offered licenses to grow cannabis for coffee shop consumption. The licenses were supposed to go into effect at the beginning of 2021 and were to last for the next four and half years. The licenses also covered cultivation for 79 coffee shops mostly located in just five towns—Groningen, Maastricht, Nijmegen and Tilburg.
However, right from the beginning there were major problems.
The first was that while 26 municipalities initially signed up, the larger cities, including Amsterdam, with of course, the largest number of coffee shops in the first place, refused to take part. Questions about why the Dutch government proceeded in the face of this opposition to begin with are legion to this day.
Regardless, the call went out, including in the international cannabis press, and companies rushed in to apply. This was aided in no small part by an army of overpaid, exclusively male “consultants” particularly from the U.S., Canada and UK who had no idea what they were doing but touted “previous” experience in vastly different markets. Industry insiders close to the process have also reported a range of technical issues—including respondents not providing even basic identifying information (such as contact details and company location).
Even more embarrassingly, when the news of one finalist contender slipped out, residents of the town of Etten-Leur, on the Belgian border town complained about the idea of replacing blackberry crops with cannabis all the way to the federal government. The Minister of Medical Care and the Minister of Justice and Security had previously assured the government that all local communities in which cultivators would operate were not only on board, but would receive additional state money and support.
As a result, the bid, as of January 2021, has been scrapped, at least for the time being. But don’t expect that state of affairs to last for long. There is zero way the Dutch government, now one of the largest export providers of medical cannabis in Europe (starting with Germany right across the border) is going to be able to let the issue drop even domestically.
Further, with Luxembourg on track, at least so far, to launch its own recreational cannabis market next year, and the German national elections looming where further cannabis reform is sure to be an issue, it is not like the Dutch can sit this one out. That said, they may certainly try. As of January, 2021, Amsterdam has proposed a new ban on all cannatourists in the future.
The question is, however, what will the next generation of the Dutch bid be? And further, will the plan finally be a national one that includes the entire industry, in every city, from Maastricht to Amsterdam? Not to mention one that welcomes weary customers of both domestic and foreign origin?