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The Double Standards of the Dutch Marijuana Policy

By Pandam Published Sun Oct 11 2020

Let’s face it: Beautiful architecture, cobblestone roads, Van Gogh and Rembrandt are not the sole reasons millions of tourists are drawn to Amsterdam every year. Below all the beauty, the parks and the waterways lies something slightly sinful, slightly exciting that makes you feel like there is more to it than first meets the eye. A visit to a coffee shop, a piece of space cake or a stroll through the red-light district are just as much on peoples' bucket list as a trip to the Rijksmuseum. The city has a historic reputation for being a liberal space where even a banker can zone out to some Bob Marley in his favourite coffee shop after a long day of work. A place where you can see groups of Japanese grandmothers walk through the red-light district, shocked but also slightly fascinated. Amsterdam is the place where you could convince your mom to smoke a blunt because when in Rome… This dynamic has created many myths. Few people know the background of Coffee Shop culture and how this image came about. Whilst legalization of recreational Marijuana consumption proceeds worldwide, the Dutch marijuana policy is frozen in time, stuck in a twilight zone between criminal prosecution and legalization. Because what most people don’t know is that marijuana is NOT legal in the Netherlands. Buying a joint in a coffee shop is a crime! You just don’t face prosecution for it. The key word is: Tolerance. Members of the public are not to be prosecuted for acquiring or possessing up to 5g of either Marijuana or Hash, even though the legal basis for it exists.

This policy came about when the Dutch state decided to take a more pragmatic approach to fighting drugs. In it, the prosecution of lawbreaking behaviour is seen as a mean to an end and not something that has an intrinsic worth. What this meant was a legal division between hard and soft drugs, based on the perceived hazard a substance constitutes for individuals and society. The degree of prosecution that a drug is subjected to is based on this categorization. This has led to the development of an increasingly tolerant attitude by the police towards Cannabis products since the 1970s. It didn’t take long for dealers to recognize this and the first semi-public sales started emerging in music venues and youth clubs. Fearing that a ban would only make the market move into shadier parts of society, the Dutch government published specific rules for ‘house dealers’ in the 1990s. The way for coffeeshops was paved. The rest is history.

In reality, this does not make much of a difference for consumers. No tourist must fear getting blindside tackled by a police squad when leaving a coffee shop. Especially in Amsterdam, rules and regulations are not hard felt. The negative implications however are there, yet simply out of sight. What is internationally seen as a liberal and progressive culture actually has some legal grey areas with severe implications. The fact that the selling of weed is quasi legal does not mean that the production is. What is commonly referred to as the ‘backdoor problem’ means that coffeeshops still have to acquire their stock via illegal producers.

The hypocrisy of this is obvious. Having to rely on illegal producers does not only mean that the Dutch state loses millions in tax revenues, it also means that no effective means for quality control are in place. So what was once seen as Europe’s most progressive drug policy does not fully tap into three of the most vital arguments in favour of cannabis legalization: quality control, elimination of the illegal market and economic gains. Leaving supply unchecked does not make the consumption of cannabis any safer, meaning that the risks of uneducated consumption becomes even larger. To combat this is the mission of Amsterdam’s Cannabis College. Located at the end of one of Amsterdam’s busiest tourist streets it aims to provide first timers, veterans and home growers with the necessary education. "The main problem is that there is no central authority and hence no standards for growing, storage and genetics of the plants", says Fernando, a five-year member of the college. The effect is that traces of mould, fungus and pesticides can be found on products sold in coffeeshops.

He and his colleagues offer a service where suspicious customers can get their recently acquired cannabis checked under a microscope. And it is not unheard of that they find something. "There are no official numbers, but I would estimate that roughly four out of ten coffeeshops have a supply that is in one way or another subpar," says Fernando. The issues with there being no central institution to overview distributors' conducts is, of course, that even if this is discovered no real repercussions can possibly follow. It is entirely up to the vendors' own good will to improve their product. Since Cannabis in Amsterdam is a very competitive market, few are willing to decrease their margins by investing more time and care into an already hard to come by product.

Of course this does not mean that all coffeeshops are actively endangering your health. But the problems that the black sheep are causing cannot be denied: after all, how good can smoking moldy weed and pesticides be? And life is not made a lot easier for the ones that actively try to provide quality. By keeping production and large scale distribution illegal, law enforcement basically reserves a way to step in whenever they see fit. No business build on such shaky legal basis can really flourish to its full extent. This becomes especially apparent when compared to other countries such as Canada where in 2018 legalization, in combination with strict governmental standards for production and sales, has paved the way for a booming industry with a projected worth of $23 billion per year.

So the perceived progressiveness of Dutch Cannabis culture at large has to be taken with a grain of salt. Especially medical users will refrain from any product that is not subject to rigorous testing. Globally, we see a variety of more advanced solutions being offered and Dutch legislators need to take action in order to make this (big) part of Dutch identity fit for the present and the future.

Because no matter if conservatives like it or not, Cannabis is a huge part of the international fascination with the Netherlands. Tulips, art and architecture alone didn’t get you here. Neither did red-light districts or liberal drug laws. But rather the unique mixture of class and sin, of culture and mindless pleasure that is Amsterdam.

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