The Great Dutch Cannabis Experiment Morphs On

Cannabis reform is an evolving discussion in the land of the Coffee Shop, and the domestic industry is clearly pivoting for a new decade.
The Great Dutch Cannabis Experiment Morphs On
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The Netherlands has pioneered many parts of the cannabis industry as it has evolved and changed over the last half century. See the eponymous coffee shop.

As a nation, Holland is home to an entrepreneurial ethos that feels like a mixture of American free market economics overlaid on European sensibilities. Like Germany next door, for example, prostitution and cannabis have more or less been legal for a long time. Indeed cannabis and licensed sex workers were lumped together as “sin” industries, like in say, Las Vegas, New Orleans, or Sun City a bit further afield. Right down to the proximity of the real estate they shared (and sometimes still do) in say, Amsterdam.

Laissez (faire) les bons temps rouler and all that.

As a direct result, Holland and even more iconically its capital and most important port city, encapsulated and carried forward a dream of more accessible if not legal cannabis through very dark days indeed.

It has been a very long journey.

A Brief History So Far

There is of course, an interesting parallel in Dutch history tied to the fortunes of another humble plant. See the tulip market and public company stock market floats for similar ventures during most of the 17th and 18th centuries, if not a bit of a hangover into the 19th. But it was not just the Dutch tulip or more noxious human traffic that also flowed through Dutch ports (as it did in too many places elsewhere), but also that early experiment in how equity markets worked that also created the Dutch flexibility with entrepreneurial company formation.

Even if the ethos, if not sustainability behind the same, has been at times far from morally acceptable, such a history has also created a culture which has birthed some remarkable hybrid outcomes. Including of course in the cannabis space.

As a direct result, in fact of this fervid, if not ripe environment for innovation, cannabis has held its own as a recognizably “modern” industry here since at least the 1970’s.

The image, if not cultural meme, of the Dutch coffee shop is also a powerful, cross cultural symbol that few other countries or even canna-friendly jurisdictions have yet effectively grappled with, let alone widely implemented.

Yet the Cannabis Cup, the legendary competition and conference that punctuated a lot of this reform certainly within the memory of Boomers and Gen X, came to a very sorry, multi-year pause in 2014 as local authorities finally put down their feet. The coffee shops they would tolerate (barely, although there has been a paring down of these too). An international conference with open sampling of product? Not a chance. However, the Cannabis Cup was not to be stopped; the competition returned to Amsterdam in 2017 and 2018.

But at the beginning of a new decade, it is also clear that official Dutch policy on cannabis is on the edge of changing yet again. And it is taking an interesting form.

Reform and Regulation Redux

In the year 2020, the regulation of the entire Dutch industry is taking an intriguingly new but absolutely necessary step forward.

Holland has emerged in the last decade, and certainly in the last four years since German medical reform, as the convenient go-to country just across an open border, for a product that German legislators at least, are still squeamish about cultivating domestically. The higher medical standards for this market (regulated under international pharmaceutical certifications) are very much different than the grey niche serving the coffee shops.

The two markets however, are also absolutely linked beyond this. At almost exactly the same time that the German Bundestag (Parliament) voted unanimously to cover medical cannabis under “public” health insurance, which covers 90% of the population in 2017, Dutch health insurers, right across the border, stopped their coverage policies.

The upshot of that, plus a still popular, albeit vastly more reigned in and semi-regulated coffee shop trade in the larger cities in particular, is that Dutch patients, along with consumers (locals and tourists) have all been essentially forced into a system which is hardly suitable to oversee either properly.

Beyond this, as a direct result of the development of the European medical market, the entire Dutch cannabis market has been given an external inspection from regulators all over Europe, and where there have been gaps (particularly in the aftermath of the Canadian-Denmark explosion that was CannTrust last summer), there have also been diplomatic negotiations and sidestepping on both sides of borders.

Bottom line? As of 2018, when the German cultivation bid was clearly off-track and delayed by lawsuits, and even more certainly by late 2019 when Germany upped its quota of imported cannabis in agreement with the Dutch government, the Netherlands became a crucial source of medical product for its neighbor.

That in turn, unsurprisingly to those in American states, Canadian provinces or Israel who have experienced the same thing over the last several years, has begun to shape the entire domestic Dutch industry.

Indeed, the government is now moving forward with an experiment with ten municipalities to create a regulated seed to sale market for Dutch recreationally consumed cannabis. That the biggest cities are still sitting this one out is a sign that there is clear political clash on the horizon between competing municipalities if not regulations and laws.

However, for the first time in this entire conversation, Holland is starting to resemble Colorado or California. And that in turn is having an impact elsewhere. Starting with the rest of Europe.

The Looming Luxembourg Discussion

Beyond Holland, there are other recreational if not regulatory forces afoot. Country after country, with the notable exception so far of France in Western Europe, has now begun to get on the cannabis bandwagon. This is expected to increase as Covid-related, if not economic, green new deal discussions begin to take root in the aftermath of an economically if not medically challenging time for most.

Luxembourg is the most forward looking of all, with an agenda to fully legalize recreational use by 2022. However that, plus other medical market developments in places like Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy and of course Switzerland, added to the CBD discussion is clearly continuing to place impetus on those who make the decisions that further reform is required.

Holland, in other words, may be the old green-grey lady, but she is clearly pulling her socks up to enter a discussion now across Europe that is not only picking up steam, but looking to the domestic industry for leadership, guidance if not a little data on how to do things next.

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