“It’s the home of Holland’s central government ministries, housed in tall bland buildings filled with thousands of bureaucrats and policymakers.
From the tenth floor of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS), I looked out at the Court of International Justice, where war crimes trials are held, and at the Binnehof, home of the country’s parliament. Nearby, I could see the magnificent St Jacobskerk church, and several centuries-old royal palaces.
All was serene, cautious, and well mannered, as were the four high-ranking Dutch officials who had agreed to talk to me about Holland’s evolving marijuana policies.
When I’ve asked American government drug policy officials if they’d do an interview for a “marijuana magazine,” they’ve almost always reacted with derision and horror, but in Holland I was graciously welcomed by Peter Pennekamp, director-general of the VWS Ministry, Dick Kaasjager, managing director for Mental Health and Addiction Policy, Willem Scholten, head of the newly-created Office of Medical Cannabis, and by Bob Keizer, head of the Addiction Policy division.
Bas Kuik, a Ministry media liaison, had expertly handled the long-distance planning for my visit, and guided me through the labyrinth chambers of the Ministry’s skyscraper.
The men were highly educated, fluent in English, French, German, Swiss, and other languages. They had advanced degrees and decades of experience in fields such as pharmacology, international law, mental health, counseling, and medicine.
Even though they were educated, elite and erudite, and dressed far better than me, they were also friendly, witty, and soft-spoken. I found myself wishing I had been born in Holland.
Many people believe marijuana and prostitution are totally legal in Holland. In reality, cannabis and prostitution are “illegal but tolerated.”
Holland is mistakenly perceived as Libertarian, but it’s actually Liberal with a very capital “L,” which means citizens pay high tax rates to fund an activist government that attempts to closely guide citizen behavior.
The country abides by international and inter-European treaties that prohibit most plant-based drugs. The government tries hard to prevent “illicit” drug use. The VWS coordinates anti-drug efforts, but other massive ministries, such as the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior, are deeply involved.
Local municipal officials have wide and increasing discretion, especially in their ability to shut down “nuisance” coffeeshops. Military and customs personnel also work against drug use and trade, sometimes under the guise of anti-terrorism campaigns.
When I left Holland from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport a few weeks ago, for example, all solo passengers on my flight and others were being detained for draconian questioning in the departure area. Nosy civilian agents hired by the government asked who I had visited in Holland, how I knew them, and if they had touched my luggage. They also asked if my tourist activities included visits to coffeeshops.
Despite such excesses, the Dutch government’s drug policies do not primarily rely on the heavy hand of law enforcement. Instead, Holland utilizes a pragmatic “harm reduction” model. This model acknowledges that citizens, especially young people, will experiment with drugs.
Instead of providing propagandistic, inaccurate anti-drug information, or threatening drug users with arrest and imprisonment, Kaasjager explained, the Netherlands government offers “credible information about the harms of drug use,” and “healthy alternatives to drug use.”
“We aren’t running a drug war,” Kaasjager said. “Our desire is to be rational, and to provide safety for our citizens. We do not believe in handling drug use as a criminal problem. It’s a social issue best handled by families, medical professionals, prevention policies, and educators.”
Kaasjager and his colleagues say marijuana users can harm themselves by abusing cannabis, but they also said that cannabis is generally less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.
“It can have bad effects on the lungs,” Kaasjager said. “It can interfere with memory, concentration, and reaction time, but any substance can be abused. We do not believe that moderated cannabis use causes severe health problems or leads to harder drug use. Our soft drugs policy, which includes tolerance and regulation of marijuana-dispensing coffeeshops, minimizes interaction between hard drug dealers and cannabis users. Our education campaigns reach into all parts of peoples’ lives. Studies show our policy is a success. Our drug use rates are lower than many countries with harsher policies, such as France, Sweden and the United States. We aren’t turning away from our policies.”
Dutch cannabis use rates are declining, especially among the 12 to 18 year old age group, Director-General Pennekamp said. At the same time, he noted, National Forensic Institute studies indicate that specialized weedbreeding and horticulture techniques are producing average THC content of 8.6% in Dutch cannabis. Average THC content of imported pot is 6%.
Pennekamp says the government is studying the occurrence of pesticide residues in Netherlands-grown cannabis (otherwise known as “Nederwiet”). The government has also started to annually measure the potency of coffeeshop cannabis.
As a result of strict enforcement and administrative and judicial measures, the number of coffeeshops has diminished from nearly 1,200 in 1995 to 846 in November 1999. There are no coffeeshops in 433 of Holland’s 538 municipalities, although unregistered sales outlets exist in some of those locales.
Dutch laws have recently been amended to close loopholes that facilitated seed production and sales. Police units, assisted by tips from informants and the country’s electricity providers, have stepped up the search for commercial marijuana producers and importers. Prosecutors have been given increased power and funding to seek harsher penalties for cannabis criminals.
Some may find it surprising that Dutch policy is geared toward reducing recreational cannabis use, sales, cultivation and tourism. Although the Dutch cannabis industry generates millions of guilders in direct and indirect economic benefits every year, the government’s official policy is inherently at odds with the cannabis industry.
Cures not wars
Last year, American medical pot expert Dr Tod Mikuriya told me he’d met a Dutch official who intended to head an official Office of Medical Cannabis.
Willem Scholten confirmed Mikuriya’s tip in late December; I spoke to him in The Hague a few weeks later.
“The United Nations International Narcotics Control Board in 1998 requested member states to provide worthy research on this subject,” Scholten explained. “The Office of Medical Cannabis will determine whether cannabis can be used medically and for what conditions. We will supervise clinical studies, and if the studies yield positive results, we should ensure an adequate supply of licensed pharmaceutical cannabis products. The Office will act as a regulator for cannabis horticulture, cannabis resin and related substances for clinical trials. Private companies will be in charge of manufacturing medical cannabis products. We will stimulate high quality trials that can be done with several dosage forms of varying composition for multiple indications.
“We are guided by a scientific advisory board,” continued Scholten. “The board members are health care inspectors specialized in clinical trials and narcotics, a neurologist, a pharmacognosist, a lawyer and representatives of the Multiple Sclerosis Patients Association and the HIV Patients Association.” (Scholten said a “pharmacognosist” is a pharmacologist who specializes in herbal medicines.)
Dutch marijuana growers enthusiastically welcomed the announcement of Scholten’s new agency, hoping they would be able to sell pot to the government instead of just to coffeeshops.
“We’ll order cannabis from private growers,” Scholten said. “The Office will have the sole responsibility for importing, exporting, selling and storing cannabis, cannabis resin and their preparations. It will also be the licensing authority for these substances. Dutch law requires licenses of those who grow cannabis. Our Office will give these licenses to growers who have contracts with the Office. Growers will be screened before they are contracted. The contract conditions will require that contractors sell their entire crops to the government. Medicinal cannabis must be organically grown, free of contaminants, and properly processed. Growers will be subject to grow room inspections, quality controls, and will be required to sell their entire crop to our agency. The need for medicinal cannabis depends on the number and size of the clinical trials that will be done. We don’t expect that a large amount of cannabis will be needed in the next few years.”
Would-be government pot growers also face other hurdles.
Scholten’s office will closely scrutinize anyone who wants to grow government herb. Growers must provide an analysis of the cannabinoid profile of their crops. They have to document cultivation techniques and inputs, and prove they can grow identical crops with consistently similar cannabinoid profiles. And if the grower has been involved in the illegal drug trade, Scholten’s office will turn down their application to grow mediwiet.
Holland’s socialized medical system provides drugs free of charge or at reduced rates, but Scholten acknowledged that in the short term, his new office’s activities would not result in insurance-compensated medical cannabis.
“There is insufficient evidence that cannabis is medically effective, and there is no standardized cannabis medicine that meets pharmaceutical standards,” he said. “We will research the development of medical raw cannabis or a cannabis preparation with a standardized cannabinoid content, thus enabling the patient to trust that the action is always the same, given a certain dose. Our task is to develop a preparation that meets all pharmaceutical standards. Our program aims to do so in several years. After licensing as a medicine, reimbursement should be subject to the same rules as the reimbursement of other medicines.”
Scholten insisted that I make it clear that his government views medical cannabis as completely different from recreational cannabis. He believes that medical cannabis users should not be “stigmatized” by inadvertent media association of medical cannabis with coffeeshops and the generic recreational marijuana subculture.
His ministry even objects to terminology such as “mediwiet,” and “medical pot,” preferring to describe the healing plant as “medical cannabis or hemp.”
Brussels sprouts new pot policies
Holland and Belgium are linked by more than geography. The Hague and Brussels used to be linked as the dual “political capitol” of the “United Kingdom of the Netherlands.”
In the 21st century, however, Belgium is its own country, and in early 2001, it announced new cannabis policies that are in some ways more lenient than Holland’s policies.
I first heard about the Belgian changes in early January. I met a Dutch official who told me anonymously about US drug czar Barry McCaffrey’s visit to Holland two years before.
“He met with about 40 of us,” the official reported. “He said he knew our approach to drugs worked better than the US program, but that he could never say that in public due to political pressure. Then he went out and lied to the press. We were disgusted.”
The Dutch official also told me to contact Belgian authorities about rumored revisions to their pot laws.
I later spoke with Paul Geerts, a representative of Belgium’s Minister of Public Health, Magda Aelvoet.
During our first conversation, Geerts was preparing for the press conference that would announce Belgium’s new policies.
He confirmed that Belgian policymakers had created cannabis law revisions that would likely be approved within seven months by the country’s parliament.
“Belgium policy includes alcohol, tobacco, and so-called illegal drugs,” Geerts said. “Our law from 1921 prohibits all use, possession and making of cannabis. We will change that to allow use and cultivation for personal consumption. We will also look into medical cannabis use and research. We are not making limits on the number of grams or the number of plants. The police and prosecutors will determine if the amount a person has is reasonable. They will use a fair and complex process to do this. They will not have to give a booking or arrest somebody. They have the power to interpret a situation. Arbitrary numbers are meaningless. Just because you have a wine cellar doesn’t mean you are an alcoholic or a wine merchant.”
The new policy contains exceptions that will limit a person’s ability to have, use and grow marijuana.
“We will work against abuse, and against use that causes a societal nuisance,” Geerts explained. “Driving while high is still not allowed. If you arrive every day at school high, and you can’t remember anything, or if you are a young person 12 years old using cannabis, it’s an abuse situation that will be dealt with. Consuming drugs in the presence of minors or using them near schools will not be allowed. If you get too high and cause a public nuisance, that will also be stopped. If you pee in public where nobody can see you because you will burst if you don’t, that’s not a nuisance. But if you pee in the grand plaza in Brussels, that’s a public nuisance.”
Cannabis Culture online was the first international news organization to report Belgium’s new pot policies. Our coverage generated intense interest, especially among Dutch pot entrepreneurs.
Coffeeshop guru Nol Van Schaik immediately contacted us to advise that he had created an Internet joint venture with a Belgian pot activist. Belgium and Holland officials knew that many Belgians procure marijuana from Holland, he reasoned, so why not provide it via mail over the Internet.
Van Schaik began looking for a building in Brussels or Antwerp where he could open a multi-purpose pot center. His plans generated intense media coverage. For a week, television crews followed Van Schaik around, giving nightly coverage to his offer to “work with the Dutch and Belgian governments to establish a unified cannabis policy that combines the best of the country’s cannabis laws into one really good policy.”
“We’ll open a hemp museum and info center, a cultivation education store, and provide a place for Belgians to smoke cannabis,” the Haarlem hempster explained. “We’ll show them the best growing equipment and techniques, and we’ll explain how hemp and marijuana can help the world and how they can use cannabis for a better life.”
Van Schaik hoped that government officials would welcome his efforts to decrease marijuana tourism traffic jams and provide Belgians with “the safest growing methods and materials.”
Geerts said Van Schaik’s proposals were unwelcome, and had caused Belgium officials to create policies that would prevent the pot industry from taking advantage of proposed marijuana liberalization.
“No sales of marijuana are permitted, from the Internet or anywhere else within Belgium,” Geerts said. “We will not allow coffeeshops or grow shops, even if they do not sell marijuana. The police will quickly stop them. These businesses would promote marijuana. No commercial cannabis plantations are allowed. Selling and dealing are forbidden. If somebody comes here to open up a coffeeshop or promote marijuana, they will be shut down.”
Van Schaik said he would continue to “push both governments toward a unified rational policy.”
“The way to make new law is to break old laws,” Van Schaik said defiantly. “And I don’t believe it’s illegal to help the Belgians get and grow the best weed at the best price with the least traffic jams, hassle and pollution. If our governments would work with the marijuana industry instead of against it, Europe would be far better off.”
When I told Geerts that some people now viewed Belgium as being more progressive than Holland, he responded, “We are not trying to be progressive, we are trying to help our country.”
“This is purely rational and pragmatic,” he continued. “We have a problem with drug use, so we try to find what works. There have been several years of government work on a new policy, including work done by a committee formed a year ago. We don’t want our people to use drugs. We are spending half a billion francs on prevention messages and help for drug users. It will always be the intention to keep drug users out of prison and guide them to drug aid.”
In the short term, Geerts admits, cross-border marijuana tourism and procurement may increase, as Belgians unable or unwilling to grow their own stone go to Dutch coffeeshops to purchase what they can legally possess, but not buy, in Belgium. Importing marijuana into Belgium remains illegal, however, and there are other “problems that need clarification” in the new policies.
The spokesperson admitted that the new policy was a “colossal compromise” that “had critics from all sides of the issue.”
Indeed, Belgium Senators Patrick Van Krunkelsven and Vincent Van Quickenborne, along with other politicians and commentators, criticized the proposals.
The senators and other citizens said Belgium should have made coffeeshops legal; opponents said the new policies would increase drug abuse.
“We’ve examined cannabis laws and programs in all other countries to see what is effective and what is not,” Geerts countered. “We do not want to have a situation like in some other countries where the government says it wants to help people but then ends up hurting them with police tactics. Alcohol and tobacco are a much bigger problem than cannabis, and they are legal. In Belgium you can legally smoke tobacco and drink alcohol. It doesn’t make good logic that cannabis would be illegal.”