Belgian activists Tuesday planned to inaugurate the country's first publicly known marijuana garden, but Belgian police intervened, arresting four of them after a press conference to announce their plans but before they could actually transport their clones to the garden site. While the press conference was covered by the media and police were present, the cops waited until the media had left and the activists were on the way to the garden to swoop down.
The action was undertaken by Draw Up Your Plant, an Antwerp consumer group, working in conjunction with the broader European Cannabis Social Clubs movement, which seeks to regularize consumer marijuana production across the continent. The cannabis club movement is an outgrowth of the Freedom to Farm campaign targeting United Nations bans on the cultivation of cannabis, coca, and opium, sponsored by European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD).
ENCOD coordinator Joep Oomen was one of those arrested as the group headed for the garden after its public event. He and three other Draw Up Your Plant members were detained for four hours and now face legal proceedings. Oomen reports that police seized his cell phone and laptop computer, where vital ENCOD information is stored, thus crippling the organization until the devices are returned.
"Belgian drug policy is ambiguous," Oomen told Drug War Chronicle. "It says it is illegal to produce THC, which is considered as an illegal drug, but it also says that the possession of up to three grams or one female plant is considered the lowest priority in prosecution. The first is due to the fact that Belgium has signed the UN conventions, the second is a pragmatic solution to the debate on depenalization of cannabis use," Oomen explained. "Our action is a way to test the law, to denounce this ambiguity."
The day got off to a good start, with a large contingent of national and international media on hand as Draw Up Your Plant members, including Belgian parliamentarian Stijn Bex, produced a mother plant that had been publicly planted this summer in the Antwerp Botanical Garden and took six clones from it -- one for each group member. After the presentation, the group gave a letter to the Lord Mayor of Antwerp that provided the address of the garden and keys to the door. The event took place with the permission of local authorities, including the police.
"This is an excellent action to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the law," said Bex. "The authorities should install a decent regulation for the production and sale of cannabis."
But that's not what Belgian police had in mind. Once the media had departed and the group was heading for the garden, police stopped them and confiscated their clones and the mother plant, as well as Oomen's electronic devices. The four were interrogated for four hours on suspicion of being involved in drug production and their homes were searched.
Had the group been allowed to go to the garden, Belgian authorities would for the first time have faced a situation where the "drug dealers" were working with the police and providing detailed information about their activities. Instead, the police chose to go after them the old-fashioned way. Now they will get a court battle.
"Our lawyers say we have a strong case," said Oomen. "If we are found innocent, that will be a great advance. If we are found guilty, we will appeal."
In a draft ENCOD press release circulating Thursday, the group argued that European policies of tolerating marijuana use while keeping it technically illegal were not enough. "The legal status of the cultivation of cannabis for personal use remains one of the weak points of international drug prohibition," the group argued. "In practice, it is tolerated, but officially it remains an illegal practice. Prohibition of cannabis causes legal insecurity for cannabis consumers -- estimated between 10 and 30 million EU citizens -- as well as corruption and arbitrariness on behalf of legal authorities. By organizing an association of cannabis cultivators, who operate within the margin of tolerance created by pragmatic politicians in order to avoid making an end to end of cannabis prohibition, the Cannabis Social Clubs are offering a simple solution to create a transparent system of cannabis cultivation which allows control by health and legal authorities."
The governments of Europe have a problem with unregulated marijuana production. The Cannabis Social Club movement has a solution. The Belgian government had the opportunity to take a step forward Tuesday; instead, it took a step backward. Now it will be up to the courts.