Feature: In Holland, Cannabis Politics Heats Up

For more than 30 years under the policy of "gedoogbeleid," which could best be translated as "pragmatic tolerance," the Dutch have allowed the sale of personal amounts of marijuana through the coffee house system, even though doing so is technically illegal. But lately, especially for those of us on this side of the water, a black cloud appears to be hovering over the coffee shops. The number of coffee shops has contracted from about 1,500 in 1995 to 720 now, as successive governments have tightened the screws. The current national government is hostile, if somewhat divided on the issue, and recent headlines about moves to close coffee shops in some border towns and reduce their numbers across the country add to the ominous picture.

Smokey coffee shop (courtesy amsterdam.info)
But the picture is nowhere near as gloomy as presented by the occasional Reuters or Associated Press report covering such developments. Dutch cannabis policy is approaching a tipping point, the status quo is under pressure, but in the medium-term, the end result is more likely to be a move to regulate cultivation as well as retail sales, perhaps under gedoogbeleid policies that leave the laws on the books but ignore them in practice, than the end of the coffee houses and retreat back into prohibition.

Three parties in coalition form the national government: the Social Democrats (PvdA), the Christian Democrats (CDA), and Christian Union (CU), a fundamentalist Christian Party. The two Christian parties oppose drug use in general and the coffee shop system in particular, and would like to see it go away. But the most powerful party in the coalition, the Social Democrats, is much less hostile, and even amenable to regulating cannabis production as well as retail sales.

While the Christian parties appear implacable in their opposition on moral grounds, the PvdA and the opposition parties are arguing more pragmatically over a pair of issues that have come to symbolize the "problems" of the coffee shops. One is the endless influx of cannabis buyers from neighboring countries with more repressive laws, who clog the city centers of border towns and sometimes deal with hard drug dealers and create public nuisances as well. The other major issue around the coffee shops is the "backdoor problem," wherein, while retail sales at the coffee shops are tolerated, the wholesale supply of cannabis to the coffee shops remains tethered to a criminal netherworld.

"It is true that some problems have arisen around the coffee shops," said Joost Sneller, assistant to opposition DP66 Party MP Boris van der Ham, "but a lot of that has to do with vagueness surrounding cultivation, and not with the coffee shops themselves. The backdoor problem is only a problem because we make it so," Sneller argued. "There is one simple solution, and that is legalization of backdoor purchase and the regulation of the entire soft drugs chain. The selling of cannabis should be licensed," he said.

"The coffee shops are a good way to deal with soft drugs and regulate their sales," agreed Velzen van Krista, an opposition Socialist Party MP. "The coffee shop system definitely ensures that people who buy soft drugs don't get mixed up with hard drug sellers."

While the coffee shops are a good interim measure, the best approach would be to simply regulate the whole trade, said van Krista. "Our people don't use soft drugs at a higher rate than surrounding countries, and since it is being used anyway and making it illegal doesn't help, we might as well just legalize it," she argued. "That would create legal jobs, taxable income, quality control, even jobs in security work, because there is a lot of dough in growing."

Marc Josemans, a coffee shop proprietor since 1983, is president of the Maastricht coffee shop association, representing all 14 coffee shops in the border city. The Maastricht association is one of eight regional associations, all of which are organized into the national coffee shops association, LOC, which represents about a third of all coffee shops in the Netherlands.

"The best solution for the problem of foreign cannabis consumers who visit our city just for the coffee shops, 43% of all visitors, is that their governments take responsibility by creating a safe place where people can buy their products without coming into contact with the hard drugs," said Josemans. "In the meantime, we will relocate some coffee shops to the outskirts of town especially for those foreign coffee shop visitors."

Van Krista also suggested moving border town coffee shops to non-tourist areas. "The people coming to the coffee shops aren't coming to look at our beautiful cities but to go to the coffee shops," she said, "so I think we should locate them in the outskirts or in industrial zones."

As for the backdoor problem: "We need one transparent line of production, consumption, and sale of cannabis," said Josemans. "That's the only solution. By regulating our back door, we can benefit from quality controls on cultivators and tax revenues like the coffee shops. We cannot imagine that the soft drugs policy that has been proven to work will be thrown overboard because some politically in-charge moralists believe in a 'drug-free' world," Josemans said.

But while there is much talk within the national government about the "coffee shop problem," by the terms of the accord they reached when they took power in 2007, the coalition parties are bound not to attempt to alter the status quo on the coffee shops during their term in office, which ends in 2010. The accord was an attempt to gloss over ideological differences between the parties, and the result was that the only official national government position is a desire to close down coffee shops within 250 meters of secondary schools. But the only officials who can act to close coffee shops are municipal authorities, and they are much less hostile than elements of the governing coalition.

"The government thus put the responsibility for the administration of cannabis policies for the next few years at the local level," noted Joep Oomen of the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), who observes Dutch developments from nearby Antwerp, Belgium.

It is at that level, where officials have day-to-day experience dealing with coffee shops and the issues around them, that support for complete legalization is growing -- and it is growing in an effort to find pragmatic solutions to the real problems around Holland's half-baked cannabis policies. The ball really got rolling last month, when the mayors of the southern border towns of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom announced they would close all the shops in their cities because of the influx of foreigners. That led the mayor of Eindhoven to announce a proposal for a municipal cannabis garden to supply coffee shops in his city in a bid to reduce the illicit cannabis trade that exists outside the coffee shop system and causes many of the problems associated with foreign "drug tourism."

Those moves in turn led to the November 13 "Weed Summit," where the 30 most involved mayors called for a "simple and transparent policy, including a legal system to supply the coffee shops that would be carried out in coordination with European governments." This proposal was also signed by the mayors of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom, whose announcement of looming coffee house closures now appears more an effort to goad policy-makers than a genuine intent to shut them down.

"Please note the difference here between announcing the shut down and actually closing them down," said ENCOD's Oomen. "Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom just announced that they will close down all coffee shops, but we have to see how that takes place in practice. Dutch administrative requirements are famous for being heavily bureaucratized, so the owners have the possibility to slow down this process," he noted.

The situation in Amsterdam, which garnered international press service reports when Mayor Cohen announced he would close 20% of the city's coffee shops because they are within the 250-meter school zone, is similar, said Oomen. "The mayor has said he will not effectively start closing until two years from now, not coincidentally the year in which new elections will take place. Some people see in the announcements of the mayors a way to force national politicians to take a clear decision on this and not leave the responsibility on them."

"Cohen threatened to close down well known coffee shops just to make the discussion more clear," agreed van Krista. "This has really helped clarify the discussion."

The mayors were also responding to recent rumblings from the governing coalition about shutting down the coffee shops altogether. On November 8, CDA leader Pieter van Geel announced he favored closing down the coffee shops, prompting a quick rejection of that idea by his coalition partners the PvdA, and spurring the mayors to act.

"That seems to be the case," said Sneller. "Remember that the mayors are fueling the debate this year. We don't think the mayors are responding with a sort of anti-restriction Pavlovian response, but that they really believe regulation is the best course."

Perhaps, said Oomen, all of the scary noises from the Christians are a good thing. "The pressure from the right provokes the discussion, and in this discussion, people almost automatically reach the conclusion that a regulation is a much better option than total prohibition. It is becoming more likely that a future Dutch government without the Christian Democrats and without too heavy US or UN pressure will take important steps towards regulation."

Last week, ENCOD, the Cannabis College, and the Dutch Drug Policy Foundation tried to stoke the embers of reform with a Cannabis Tribunal at the Hague. The tribunal challenged Dutch parties to disprove the proposition that "Cannabis prohibition has more negative effects than positive ones." The only politician who took up the challenge was Cisca Joldersma, spokesperson for the CDA on drug issues, who faced off against Hans van Duijn, former head of the Dutch Police Association and a supporter of legalization. Joldersmas' arguments, based solely on opinion without resort to evidence, were deemed "without merit" by the judge of the tribunal, law professor Hendreik Kaptain of Leiden University. The organizers concluded that a parliamentary debate on cannabis prohibition is urgently needed, as no Dutch political party can explain why it should be maintained.

And so it goes in Holland. Despite the bluster of some of its members, the governing coalition is not going to touch cannabis policy. That leaves the initiative in the hands of the mayors and other interested parties -- at least until 2010, when the Dutch will have the chance to replace an at best cannabis-neutral government with a cannabis friendly one. Then, perhaps, that famous Dutch gedoogbeleid can expand to encompass the entire cannabis complex.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Great report+here's two newsflashes for the "Christian" parties

alcohol is a drug, and a damned sight more dangerous one than cannabis, too. And your guy, Jesus, hates the sin of hypocrisy. But never mind, go have another drink of your favorite drug.

Wake up call

I think it's utterly absurd to think that the restriction of legal marijuana coffeeshops is the way to combat organized crime in Holland. If anything, illegality generates criminality and as soon as they close down coffee shops in any given area, what they're actually doing is paving the way for the various eastern european, russian, middle eastern, south american & north american cartels to move in and establish themselves therefore, if anything, strict laws will only increase criminality in Amsterdam. There's also the issue that by passing such new laws, the government is taking a huge step backwards towards the "demonization" of the cannabis smoker. Something that in my book is almost a form of racism. For decades self-proclamed "puritans" have tried to demonize cannabis smokers. I remember when so-called documentaries the likes of "Reefer Madness" painted a picture of the cannabis smoker as a murdering lunatic who upon smoking a joint would rape, murder & pilage his way through otherwise god-fearing nations & blah, blah, blah... We now know this to be a load of garbage. If anything, "Potheads" are docile, funny & harmless to all who care to push their prejudices aside & get to know them. Sure, there are certain individuals who go off the deep end... we now also know that if someone has a tendency towards skitzophrenia, cannabis can be harmful, but these cases are minor and can be avoided by a simple visit to your friendly neighbourhood psychiatrist... If the government (of any country, not just holland) really wanted to deal with criminality involved with drugs they'd see that tolerance is the only way forward for all nations. Afterall, if the govermnets of the world taxed, monitored, offered help to people who potentially could develop skitzophrenia and such... who would need to go to a dealer? Who'd want to be part of any criminal network if they can do what they love legally and securely. Tighter laws generate the very criminality they 'pretend' to combat. This is a lesson that past administrations such as the Reagan & Bush "War on Drugs" have thought us. Since the USA has declared a war on drugs we see numbers increase every year in astronomical numbers. We see corrupt government agencies colaborating with drug cartels as well as other vice rings & astronomical amounts on cash spent in such organs and no results that are beneficial to society as a whole. We see good people imprisioned for smoking a lousy joint but hardly even do we see criminal networks brought down, in fact, it seems like everytime they declare war on something, what we see is that there's more of it EVERYWHERE! War on Drugs... More drugs in cities all over the world, war on poverty... more poverty & financial chaos everywhere, War on famine... millions starving because so-called "aid" is inefficient, funds are misapropiated and more often than not, UN supplies are intercepted by drug cartels and food, medicine and armaments somehow go to the "bad guys"! Yet, government tells us that we are winning on the long run... Bullshit! They re winning, Bush & Cheney will come out of this richer & more powerful than they ever were before this "War on Terror" and so will Drug Cartels, People Traffickers and Sex Slave Traders, in short. Making laws "stricter" is just more of the same garbage we heard since alcohol prohibiton times. I used to admire holland for having the tenacity to go against the company line. Their laws were revolutionary, if anything, they were a model that the world should have adopted in order to bring stability to the world. I mean, have these people forgotten the bleud feauds and turf wars that preeceeded the passing of these laws? You think holland is gonna be any saffer if you close brothels and coffee shops? No! I tell you what will happen though... Legal spots will become turfs for gangs, old brothels will turn into underground prisions for sex slaves and children who have been trafficked into the netherlands and murders... just in the few years after will grow at a steady angle & the tougher they get, the higher those numbers will rise. Tell you another thing, they'll start trying to make an example of people, arresting cannabis smokers and people who seek prostitutes instead of those who are controlling the trade. Prisons will fill up with people who don't deserve to be there! And suddenly, Dutch people will find that their civil liberties are vanishing 'cause these stupid laws are only the start of a much wider scheme... something tantamount to "social cleansing" as Hitler once called it. People of Earth, we are the proverbial frog in the pan and they are the ones rising the temperature in the water slowly... we have to put our prejudices aside before they alienate us to the point where we don't care enough to see that if it's happening to anyone else other than us, it doesn't concern us 'cause it's just a sympthom of a much larger problem. It's just more of an ancient & effective philosophy in war "To divide & conquer!"
This matter may appear stupid at first glance but thing about it... read up on the stuff your texbooks in school didn't tell you about, like the use of drugs do destroy rebellions and prohibition and who stood to profit from the illegality of alcohol, drugs, etc... Do your research, see the hyprocrisy in it all for yourself, track down the great fortunes of the last century and you'll see a pattern. If I were to write all that I object to explain what drives me to call people on this bullshit I could take years writing. Look for documentaries, search the web... start with "the real reason why marijuana is illegal" or "the birth of heroin & the demonification of the drug addict", look for Alex Jones, & 9/11 documentaries that haven't been on Fox or CNN... read High Times, check out prisonplanet.com & infowars.com, check out 911truth.com or search for drug war materials, etc... Just don't rely on the mainstream media... and hear the other side too... read "lies my teacher told me" or "rethinking our past" do something usefull with your time on-line & try and voice out what you think is right 'cause if we keep just letting all these abuses to our civil liberties just happen & these lies keep spreading then we are going to see our right to choose ANYTHING & EVERYTHING disappear these next few years ahead. Please, I beg you to just give a the same amount of time it took you to read this reply and spend it tomorrow or the day after looking up some of the sites & subjects I present here. We need to start coming out of our bubbles & seeing that there's a lot more going on than what the news tells us!

Wake up call

Very well written honey! (except for the type-Os. Wanna meet me for a joint after work? lol www.elzaslaw.com

Just Got Back

I was in Amsterdam for the past several weeks and due to my reputation as the legal advisor on the Mooring's Extradition case, I enjoy the trust and friendship of the leading movers and shakers in the Cannabis movement in Holland.

It is the general opinion of those that know, that, despite the current noise coming from the Christian fascisits, Holland, and Amsterdam in particular, will NEVER revert to prohibition and that the likely result will be legalization.

Let us hope so becasue we all know the effects of prohibition: crime, jail, and death!

Tot Ziens!

Walter Noons, Esquire
Boston, MA

Cafe reform proposal

The discussion of troublesome "cannabis tourists" flooding Dutch border cities has ignored an important point: in Europe many cannabis users have a "tradition" (learned from faulty "mentors") of mixing cannabis with tobacco in a big hot-burning "joint" (that's what they think the word means) or "spliff", thus losing the ability to tell by taste if the cannabis is adulterated (a big problem there recently) and synergizing various harmful health and behavior effects of tobacco which are conveniently blamed on the cannabis by prohibitionists.

The local officials would be better advised to retain the cafes but allow them to be used to promote 25-mg. tokes instead of gram-sized paper o.d.'s, and provide a chance, at a low price, to try out various brands of vaporizers, e-cigarettes or long-stemmed one-hitters prior to purchase of the individually appropriate model. The places could be named Vaporizer (or Vapouriser) Cafes instead of Cannabis Cafes, and operated on a BYOH (bring your own herb) basis, including even tobacco because utensils which eliminate side-stream smoke, or smoking altogether, offer short and long-term safety and benefit to addicts of that herb and everybody else.

Tot ziens to you too!


Down with Prohibition

i love the netherlands!!!

i am from england and i love your country, i love your towns and cities, i love your architecture, i love the people and i most of all love your freedom. please don't close the coffee shops and enjoy life. like you always have done. don't turn to the ways of england where everything is managed and is like a police state!!! it is so uncomfortable living here and i feel suffocated. the people in netherlands should understand that allowing people to enjoy themselfs is not a bad thig at all.

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