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  • Writer's pictureAfonso Ivens-Ferraz

Launch of Dutch legal cannabis experiment to mark “historical milestone”

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

This month, Dutch government officials have announced that a much-anticipated legal cannabis experiment will finally begin its “start-up phase” on December 15th, in the cities of Breda and Tilburg.


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For the first time in Dutch history, legally grown cannabis will be sold in coffeeshops, marking what journalist and activist Derrick Bergman calls “an historical milestone.”


That said, this news may raise more questions than answers as many misconceptions around the Dutch cannabis policy persist. The Groninger answers three important questions about the subject:



Is weed not legal in the Netherlands?


No.


Contrary to “the single biggest misconception” around Dutch cannabis culture, according to Bergman, Dutch law deems the possession, sale, and production of cannabis as illegal.


However, since the revision of a law known as the Opium Act in 1976, the Netherlands adopted a drug tolerance policy which meant that drug use was no longer a criminal offense.


It also meant that the possession of small quantities of cannabis – now classified as a ‘soft drug’ – became tolerated and, as such, cannabis users are not prosecuted for possessing the drug in limited quantities.



If weed is not legal, how do coffeeshops function?


Because of this inconsistency in Dutch coffeeshop policy, the almost 600 coffeeshops in the Netherlands exist in a gray area between what researchers have called a “tolerated front door” and an “illegal back door.”


In other words: while the retail sale of cannabis is tolerated (up to 5 grams), coffeeshops rely on an illegal supply chain since wholesale purchases – necessary for the retail business to function – are strictly illegal.


This is known as the back door problem, which obscures the source of the supply and leaves the businesses vulnerable to criminal involvement. The extent of said involvement, however, is still unclear.


The Groninger spoke to Igor, an employee of a well-known coffeeshop in Groningen who requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic. He explains that information about origin and suppliers is purposefully kept private by coffeeshop owners given the illegal nature of their trade.


Concrete data and information about the Dutch cannabis trade remain limited and imprecise, an inevitable consequence of the current policy says Bergman. “Nobody knows anything. Whether it’s me, a policeman, or a politician: none of us have real figures,” he adds.



Why is the Dutch government conducting a legal supply chain experiment?


The goal of the experiment which is set to begin is to control the quality of the cannabis produced as well as to eradicate crime from the entire supply chain.


Increased prices, decreased quality, criminality, and lack of market knowledge are all examples of the problems commonly blamed on the current half-regulated market.


The national government is thus conducting a supply chain experiment involving 10 selected municipalities - including Groningen - and the East district of Amsterdam, as well as 10 licensed growers who will supply them.


The idea is that after the experiment, the government will decide on further steps towards regulation.


Bergman shares the same optimism as some coffeeshop owners who see this as “a step in the right direction” where consumers will have access to a high-quality, controlled product. “[After this] I can’t imagine things ever going back to the way they were,” he says.


Not everyone is as enthusiastic, however. Stakeholders like Igor express their skepticism saying that “too many questions remain unanswered,” especially in terms of distribution and stock keeping. “They should just legalize it”, he says.



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