The future of Dutch cannabis policy

Monday, March 14, 2011

Victor EverhardtThe municipality of the Dutch city of Utrecht recently announced two scientific experiments on cannabis policy. One experiment will be to set up a closed club model for adult recreational cannabis users. Cannabis smokers will grow their own marijuana in a cooperative, a move which would go against the government's drive to discourage coffee shops. The other experiment concerns treatment for people who are vulnerable to psychotic disorders.

Utrecht's alderman for public health, Victor Everhardt, said about the experiments: “The municipality wants to create room for these experiments with a view to reducing the health damage caused by cannabis. Also, we hope to get a better grip on cannabis-related crime and nuisance.” The closed club model focuses on adult recreational users (see for instance the model of cannabis social clubs in Spain). This model offers them the possibility of regulated, controlled cultivation for own use in a small-scale setting. A structure of small associations with a closed membership will be applied. The regulation and control of sale within this model will be based on strict agreements that guarantee the noncriminal origin, as well the quality of the cannabis, which is important with a view to preventing a health hazard.

The police usually turn a blind eye if people have up to five plants for personal use. So if each member of the coffee shop grows those five plants in the same greenhouse, part of the problem would be solved, the council argues.

The second experiment focuses on risks of cannabis use, for example, people in treatment for schizophrenia. Health impairment by cannabis in this risk group is described in various scientific publications. The purpose of the experiment is to redirect the excessive use of cannabis to controlled usage. This takes place under medical supervision or under the supervision of a mental health institution. Cannabis use under medical supervision is part of the treatment for this group.

In addition, the municipality will focus on measures to improve information and prevent the health risks of cannabis in all the coffee shops. A recent review shows that many visitors to coffee shops are poorly informed about the harmful effects of cannabis use. The fine details still have to be worked out, but the city has said it will not operate the coffee shop or be in charge of weed production. The city will start with an experimental period that includes expert meetings where potential partners, people from the field and experts are invited. The city council shall decide on the detailed plans and proposed financing for the final launch of two scientific experiments.

Government opposition

However, the likelihood of winning government approval for the plan would appear to be small. Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten said the Utrecht plan “is not going to happen”. “I take it that the Utrecht council will get in touch with me about this,” he said. “Under no circumstances will there be legalised cultivation and there will be no deviation from that position. There will be no experiments.”

The new right-wing government that came to power in October 2010 is currently cracking down hard on ‘coffee shops’ and says it wants them to become members-only clubs with a pass system for local Dutch people in order to stop drugs tourism. The government wants to introduce the cannabis passes nationwide and plans to fast track the system in the south of the country following a recent string of drug-related violence.

Coffee shops have become a popular tourist attraction, particularly in Amsterdam and border towns such as Maastricht. In December 2010, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Maastricht city council is not breaking European law by attempting to stop non-residents buying soft drugs in the city's cannabis cafes. The court ruled that restricting sales is 'justified by the objective of combating drug tourism' and reducing public nuisance. The aim of the restriction is to maintain public order and protect public health.

However, the city councils of Eindhoven, Den Bosch and Maastricht have already voted against the plan to introduce cannabis passes and the four big cities of Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht have also pledged to campaign against it. Many experts say the government's plans to introduce passes for coffee shops to keep out tourists will encourage illegal street dealing again.

Maastricht has announced research to look into the effects of the cannabis pass. The researchers will look at drugs-related problems in areas in South Limburg and along the Belgian border with no coffee shops, and then compare these findings with the nuisance caused in towns and cities with coffee shops. The results are expected before the end of June 2011.

The government hopes coffee shops will become smaller and less vulnerable to organised crime if only locals can use them, but it has not yet given any more details on its plans to turn coffee shops into closed clubs. Nicole Maalste, a criminologist at the University of Tilburg who has written extensively on the drugs in the Netherlands, says tourists who want to buy drugs will simply look for street dealers. In addition, there are many Dutch nationals who do not want to be registered as official marijuana users, she says.

Justice Minister Opstelten also recently announced plans to make it a criminal offence to supply equipment and services to cannabis growers. The plans do not only to target 'grow shops', which sell seeds, lamps, fertiliser and other supplies, but transport firms, landlords and electricians who help with illegal cannabis production. The offence will carry a maximum jail term of three years. In 2009, police raided 4,727 cannabis plantations with a total 850,000 plants.

The future of Dutch cannabis policy

At stake is the 35-year Dutch experiment with liberal cannabis policies. The selling of cannabis in so-called coffee shops is unique. Regulation has not lead to increased use of cannabis or other drugs. The use of, and addiction to, all types of recreational drugs in the Netherlands lie near or below the European average, and far below the levels common in repressive countries like France, England or the US. Coffee shops have also ensured that hundreds of thousands of cannabis users have never acquired criminal records, or seen their driver's licenses revoked, as is common practice elsewhere.

The government seems to be heading into the direction to abolish coffee shops all together which is the stated aim of one of the coalition partners, the Christian Democratic Party. Over the past decade, successive governments have used a salami-slice strategy to slowly undercut the coffee-shop system. The cannabis pass and criminalizing services to cannabis growers are just two of the more recent measures. The Netherlands once had 1,500 coffee shops; now, there are about 700. And every year, the numbers decline, according to Maalste: “Slowly, slowly they are being closed down by inventing new rules, and new rules.”

Banning tourists from buying cannabis will not resolve the core contradiction created by the toleration policy, known as the backdoor problem: coffee shops are allowed to sell up to five gram of cannabis to consumers (the front door), but have to buy their stock on the illegal market (the back door). To draw coffee shops out of the criminal sphere entirely, the cultivation of cannabis needs to be regulated. The major Dutch municipalities can't wait to do so and Dutch parliament has twice accepted a motion along these lines, but the government refused to execute them.

Utrecht’s proposed closed club model also does not address the issue of cannabis tourism. The important difference with the government plans, however, is that it will regulate the supply of cannabis. As such it addresses the most problematic aspect of the current Dutch cannabis policy. As yet the proposal remains unclear where visiting non-residents that are not members of the association have to buy their cannabis.

Decriminalizing cannabis in the Netherlands and regulating the back-door of the coffee-shops and cultivation of cannabis would save 160 million euro on expenses by the police and the criminal justice system and bring in 260 million euro in tax revenues, a government committee charged with studying possible budget cutbacks calculated in April 2010. The Dutch government is already earning some 400 million euros a year in corporate taxes from cannabis-selling coffee-shops.

A public opinion poll in February 2010 showed that 49 percent of the Dutch think that cannabis should be legalized while 13 per cent think that the current policy should continue. Only 26 per cent want cannabis prohibited.

The future of Dutch cannabis policy lies in the hands of the conservative liberal party, the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Justice Minister Opstelten. In the past the VVD supported regulating the back door, and its former leader and former European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein last year co-authored an Op-Ed calling for regulation and permitting the production and sale of all drugs under strict conditions designed to minimise use, while making it as safe as possible.

However, the VVD has sacrificed its liberal position on cannabis regulation to form a new right-wing government with the Christian Democrat party and extra-parliamentary support of the ultra right Party of Freedom (PVV) of islamophobe Geert Wilders, in favour of closing the coffee shops as well. The poll showed that 50 percent of VVD voters are in favour of legalization of cannabis and 17 percent want continuation of the current policy.

The coming months will clarify the future of Dutch cannabis policy. Main opponents in the current debate are the new government and the mayors and city councils of the major cities in the Netherlands, who decide on local regulation of coffee shops. At a ‘cannabis summit’ in November 2008, 30 Dutch mayors declared that the government should licence the growing and supply of marijuana to the coffee shops. In contrast, the government announced it wants to institute a walking distance of a least 350 meters between schools and coffee shops, which would force 58 percent of the coffee shops to close.

The closure of sixteen coffee shops in Rotterdam because of a 250 meter rule introduced in 2009 led to a decrease in drug related nuisance. But cannabis use among young people has not diminished. A survey among both teachers and teenagers in Amsterdam proved that creating distance between schools and coffee shops is not an effective solution to the problem. Coffee shops have an age restriction and this restriction is strictly enforced. Most teenagers obtain cannabis through third parties, and do not go to coffee shops directly themselves. The distance measure is a purely symbolic policy that does not address the problem of adolescent cannabis use.