Cannabis coffeeshop confusion

Is this the last summer you will be able to enjoy sweet weed and heavenly hash in a Dutch coffeeshop, or is the legendary Dutch cannasystem going to be around long after its enemies are floating face down in a fetid canal?
This question is on the mind of marijuana heads everywhere, as the Dutch federal government wrangles with local officials, coffeeshops and the European Union (EU) in an ongoing showdown over the country’s controversial cannabis policies.

Cannabis politics are creating more and more internal tension in Europe. According to the European Drug Policy Foundation and in-country observers, Sweden and France are pressuring Holland to dismantle its 33 year “experiment” with marijuana coffeeshops and “soft drugs tolerance.”

The Netherlands’ coffeeshop system separates cannabis from other illicit drugs. Herb is purchased through regulated coffee shops, which can be immediately closed by police if hard drugs are on premises and for other reasons. Shops are limited to having 500 grams or less of stock on hand; all customers must be 18 years of age and older.

Until right wing Catholic fundamentalist prohibitionists, the CDA political party, gained control of the Dutch government in 2002, some potshop regulations were enforced only if problems occurred, which was not often.

Now, there is increased enforcement of existing law, along with new laws such as zoning regulations that ban potshops close to schools.

Cannabis shop owners and customers report an increasing number of inspections, tax audits, searches, and police detentions.

The net result is the number of licensed coffeeshops in Holland has decreased from a high of approximately 2,000 shops 14 years ago to approximately 750 shops today. Many Dutch towns now have no cannabis shops; most are located in Amsterdam, Haarlem, and other big cities.

Holland’s marijuana laws are complicated by the EU, headquartered in Brussels, which is increasingly asserting authority over member states, and by the EU’s relationship with the United States and United Nations.

Dutch citizens are to vote on ratification of a “unifying” EU constitution on June 1. Members of the Dutch government support the EU constitution, claiming it will aid the war on terrorism and create stronger economies in Europe.

Despite their arguments, opinion polls show a majority of Dutch citizens oppose being governed by the EU constitution, which would force Holland to adopt harder cannabis policies more in line with the rest of Europe.

In general, the Dutch are slightly more “progressive” than citizens of other European countries; they have long been irritated by external criticism of their 33 year policy of allowing cannabis to be sold in regulated coffeeshops.

Yet, Dutch political sentiment has turned ever more rightward after 9/11/01, and drug warriors have been cheering since voters elected the hardline CDA to head the federal government in 2002.

Even before his election, current CDA Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende talked tough against marijuana; early in CDA’s tenure as majority party, CDA Justice Minister Piet Donner began talks with France and Germany about limiting the ability of their citizens to visit Dutch shops. Donner began touting a plan to create identity cards or some other “registration program” that would keep “foreigners” out of cannabis shops.

Cannabis policies have sparked conflicts inside Holland’s coalition government.

Donner has been sharply critical of Democratic Reform party official Alex Pechtold, who recently announced that he was in favor of legalizing cannabis cultivation throughout Europe while also proposing a plan that would force cannabis shops to relocate to urban boundaries.

Donner responded by mouthing a contradictory policy that leans toward eventual closure of all cannabis shops. This prompted other politicians, such as D66 leader Boris Dittrich, to say Pechtold’s views reflect Dittrich’s own belief that countries neighboring Holland are becoming less hostile to the country’s coffeeshop system.

Holland’s political system doesn’t allow federal authorities to enact coffeeshop policies unilaterally, but some conservative local officials and the government are working against the cannabis trade more than ever before.

A long-time ban on cannabis shop advertising led to a recent legal ruling that forbids cannabis pictures and prices on pot shop websites. The municipal government in Amsterdam is attempting to close hundreds of potshops until there are only 120 remaining in the city. New shops are opening in smaller cities to replace those already closed in Amsterdam. More pot growers are being busted and evicted for growing weed; growers and supporters rioted in an urban Amsterdam neighborhood to protest police and landlord attacks against indoor grow rooms.

The province of Limburg banned foreigners from potshops. Officials there also are implementing Donner’s recommendation that potshops be prohibited from selling high-potency marijuana and hashish. Donner and Balkenende promoted this strength ban beginning two years ago, citing reports allegedly proving that high-potency cannabis products are “hard drugs” that cause mental illness, impairment and dependency.

Other hardline federal anti-coffeeshop policies finding new acceptance in a few Dutch locales include police harassment, customer monitoring, and aggressive arrests of more marijuana cultivators.

Donner’s anti-cannatourist suggestions are soon to be implemented in the southern tip of the Netherlands.

According to Justice Ministry spokesperson Ivo Hommes, the city of Maastricht will be site of a test project that seeks to “combat drugs tourism.”

The plan, which is slated to start this summer, includes “developing a system whereby people not registered in the Netherlands will not be allowed into coffee shops.”

The system could be implemented in the rest of the country if it is successful in Maastricht, Hommes said, triggering widespread booking of air and train tickets to Holland, as pot smokers rushed to grab what might be their last chance of cannabis freedom.

Maastricht is a prime tourism center, attracting nearly 2 million visitors yearly. Because it is close to the border with Germany, many German pot tourists regularly visit the city to purchase Dutch weed.

Along with Amsterdam and Haarlem, Maastricht has some of the busiest potshops in Holland.

Some news is encouraging.

According to recent opinion surveys, the Dutch people do not favor ending the cannabis shop system. And a survey of 30 of the country’s most influential mayors found that 75% of them supported full legalization of cannabis, including legalized production.

Jan Mans, mayor of the eastern border city of Venlo, which is close to Gemany, asked, “Why not do a trial with legalizing soft drugs in the border region? With the results, we can no doubt show Europe that it works.”

Mans and other mayors propose grouping coffeeshops together in border regions to facilitate easy access and decrease the effects of coffeeshops in crowded urban cores.

This is one of many challenging proposals the federal government faces in regards to the busy cross-border pot trade.

German Interior Minister Otto Schily has publicly told Donner that he wants Holland to close its coffeeshops.

Dutch border towns, including Venlo, Maastricht and Heerlen, service more than a million pot tourists per year. Most of the cannatourists are from neighboring France, Belgium and Germany.

Donner’s surprisingly pro-coffeeshop response to Germany’s criticism has been to defend Holland’s right to have a regulated marijuana system.

“Even though I understand the German opinion on the question of coffee shops, I must say that it is a question for the Dutch and not a problem for our neighbors,” he defiantly said to Schily in Berlin in 2003.

Schily, who believes Holland is an engine for Europe-wide marijuana use, is very frustrated to hear proposals by the mayors of Maastricht and Amsterdam, who say regulated production of cannabis should be legalized.

The CDA mayor of Maastricht doesn’t care what the German government thinks, he’s trying to implement whatever policies seem most likely to work.

“The drugs policy is schizophrenic because although it is legal for coffee-shops to sell cannabis, the production of cannabis is illegal. It is like telling a baker that he can sell bread but is not allowed to buy flour,” CDA mayor of Maastricht Gerd Leers said, arguing that regulated cultivation would take pot growing out of the hands of organized crime.

Outside interference

The drug war burns with isolated fire in Europe. Several years ago, the Dutch government outlawed greenhouse production of high-potency marijuana seeds. Dutch seed producers were forced to relocate seed production facilities to Switzerland, which tolerated cannabis seed breeders until two years ago, when it began arresting foreign seed producers and sentencing them to lengthy jail terms.

According to Carl, a Dutch wholesale distributor of cannabis cultivation supplies, the Netherlands’ government is increasing its actions against growers. He says police are using helicopters and cars equipped with Forward-looking Infrared Radar (FLIR), which detects heat emanating from high-intensity grow lights. He reports that grow busts have increased 200% from last year, and that leaders of the province where The Hague and Rotterdam is located have stated an intention to shut down all grow ops, claiming they are run by organized crime.

If the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and CDA hardliners have their way, cultivators will have no cannabis shops to grow for.

Professor Hamid Ghodse, president of INCB, says, “The Netherlands’ government had informed us of crucial, significant change in its policy on cannabis.”

He asserts that the Dutch government promised to end drug tourism, street dealers, and cannabis cultivation. He further claims that the Dutch government has “acknowledged that the coffeeshop system discredits the drug policy of the country in general.”

“There has been a crucial and significant change in the Dutch cannabis policy,” Ghodse says. “They now say for the first time that cannabis is not harmless and that coffee shops are not blameless.”

Holland’s potshop policies may be going through some changes, but statistics provided by the University of Amsterdam, the US Department of Health and Human Services, the British Home Office, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), and other institutions show Dutch citizens have far fewer problems with drug use and drug-related crime per capita than citizens of the United States and other countries where stricter prohibition is enforced.

The lifetime prevalence of marijuana use among US citizens over age 12 is 37%; the lifetime prevalence for their Dutch counterparts is 17%. The lifetime prevalence for heroin use is three times higher for Americans than it is for the Dutch. The percentage of the general population who have used cocaine is 10.5% in the US, five times higher than in the Netherlands.

Holland’s tolerance of soft drugs also seems comparatively successful in regards to the policy’s effects on drug-related health problems, violence, and societal expenditures on criminal behavior.

According to EMCDDA, there were 2.4 drug-related deaths per million inhabitants in the Netherlands in 1995. In France this figure was 9.5, in Germany 20, in Sweden 23.5 and in Spain 27.1. The Dutch have the lowest drug-related death rate in Europe.

The Dutch AIDS prevention program is also superior: Europe-wide, an average of 39.2% of AIDS victims are intravenous drug-users. In the Netherlands, this percentage is as low as 10.5%.

The US spends nearly twice as much on police and prisons per citizen as is spent by Holland per person. US per capita spending on criminal justice in 1998 was $511 US per person; in Holland, 289$ US per person was spent.

So this would mean that the US is safer society, right? Wrong. The US had an average of six murders per 100,000 citizens from 1999-2001; in the same period, Holland had 1.5 murders per 100,000 citizens.

Even though Holland’s potshop system is obviously an effective “harm reduction” method, the country has had to carefully construct its policies and negotiate with outside entities like the UN, so that the Netherlands can remain in apparent compliance with Dutch obligations under international anti-narcotics treaties.

Swedish and US officials complain that Holland’s marijuana shops are a violation of the country’s narcotics treaty obligations, but a strict, technical interpretation of coffeeshop regulations indicates that cannabis is indeed illegal in Holland: people possessing more than a few grams of it can be arrested, and cannabis shop owners and cannabis growers are always breaking the law when they produce, transport or procure large amounts.

Drug expert August de Loor, an independent consultant who provides drug policy advice to the Dutch government, has a pessimistic view of the future of the legendary coffeeshop system. De Loor is a long-time drug educator and researcher who earned respect in Europe for developing a team that visits house parties to provide information and testing for MDMA, as well as information about safe sex.

“The changes have been brought about by the influence of the Yankees, Brussels and the EU,” de Loor said. “The Dutch approach is usually very pragmatic, but in the past four years there is a more conservative approach. The control of coffee shops has become much stricter. The police are checking up on them more and there is much more strict interpretation of the rules. More and more mayors are banning coffee shops from their cities. I think in four or five years’ time there will be no more coffee shops left in Holland.”

Haarlem hope

Coffeeshop owner Nol Van Schaik, a longtime friend of Cannabis Culture and one of few Dutch cannabis entrepreneurs who also has a political presence, says the latest attacks on cannabis shops will not sink the system.

Van Schaik has written a coffeeshop history book, appeared on worldwide television marijuana debates, opened England’s first cannabis coffeeshop, opened Belgian and Dutch hemp museums, founded a medical marijuana organization, and repeatedly criticized the US and United Nations interference in Dutch pot policies, while also taking on anti-cannabis members of Dutch intelligentsia and government.

He owns three highly-respected potshops in Haarlem, Holland, which is a Dutch heritage town 20 minutes by train from Amsterdam. Van Schaik’s activism has been good for business: his “Willie Wortels” potshops are extremely popular with tourists and locals.

In 1989, before Van Schaik founded his cannabis shops, French police tried to take him into custody at the Spanish-French frontier after he’d been caught with a crew of ill-fated smugglers and 200 kilos of Moroccan hashish.

When police tried to put handcuffs on him, the former bodybuilder smashed his way to freedom, leapt off a mountain, stowed away for two days on a truck bound for Holland, and made it home safely.

Over the years, Van Schaik endured harassment at border crossings within Europe, as France tried to extradite him on smuggling and fugitive charges.

Several years ago, his partner Maruska and hundreds of other cannactivists marched from Haarlem to Amsterdam to protest Van Schaik’s looming extradition; the Dutch Justice Minister intervened to prevent the Dutchman from facing charges in France. The “Haarlem Hempster” thought his days of worrying about France were over.

Van Schaik was therefore very surprised in May, 2004, when he was taken into custody upon arrival in Spain. Authorities claimed they were holding him at the request of the French government. He languished in a Spanish prison until July 6, believing that he would be released. Instead, he was sent to a French prison.

Inside the walls, Van Schaik shared a tiny cell with two other men, both of them Dutch prisoners in jail for cannabis crimes. Van Schaik slept on the floor. He lost weight because the prison food was “lousy.” He spent thousands of dollars on lawyers.

On September 1, 2004, he was released from jail. His attorneys told him that French prosecutors and police made legal mistakes that made the charges against him invalid. Prosecutors re-filed the charges in late 2004. Again Van Schaik spent thousands of dollars on attorneys. Again he faced years in prison. On February 23, 2005, Van Schaik’s attorney informed Nol that the charges had again been dismissed.

In the clear again, Van Schaik went back to the project he had been implementing when he was arrested in Spain in 2004: his goal is to open Spain’s first, members-only private cannabis resort.

The day after Van Schaik announced his resort plans, he received unwelcome news: the French Superior Prosecutor announced that he was going to file the charges, again.

Undaunted, Van Schaik says that if anybody tries to keep tourists out of his shops, he will find a way to extend the warm Dutch ganja welcome that his country has long been famous for.

European tension

Van Schaik’s up and down struggles with prohibition reflects the turbulent status of cannabis in Europe and in Holland. He says he’s glad that the city of Haarlem, where his three shops are located, is not enthusiastic about ruining the coffeeshop system there.

Van Schaik says the coffeeshop industry is finally fighting back, hoping to gain more political clout and discredit prohibitionists. He believes that the most pernicious of recent government attack strategies, the attempt to ban “foreigners” from marijuana shops, cannot succeed because it is nationality-based “discrimination” that violates the Dutch constitution. And, he also reads the mood of Holland as turning to a more liberal ethos, with the populace gradually rejecting CDA, which is increasingly seen as a tool of the Unite States.

“The coffeeshops contributed 20,000 Euros to our country’s Tsunami relief fund,” he reports. “We made a big cheque with the amount on it, and we presented it at the national fundraiser banquet. Prime Minister Balkenende came up next to us and while I was taking a picture of him with the cheque, his aide read the text on it and quickly pulled him away when he saw it was from the cannabis community. But we were proud to be part of helping society, to do our part for the victims of the tsunami. Nobody can make us ashamed of the cannabis community, not even the Prime Minister.”

  • If you’re motivated to visit Holland, be sure to check out our highly informative ganja travel guides in upcoming issues of Cannabis Culture magazine.
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