Dutch coffeeshops and the new cannabis experiment

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Dutch coffeeshops

Since the opening of Coffeeshops (yes, that’s how it is spelt), they have always operated two systems. The so-called ‘front door’ which is legal and the so-called ‘back door’ which is illegal.

These two systems are totally separate and have nothing to do with each other. Let me explain…

The front door refers to the part of the coffeeshop the customer sees. That is all the coffeeshop up to and including the main counter. Everything that happens here is legal, documented and VAT is paid on all purchases.

The backdoor is what happens behind the counter. The backdoor is difficult to describe as coffeeshop owners will not talk about how the back door works. This is where the cannabis and hash is purchased. The cannabis is purchased (just as in most countries) from illegal growers on the black market where there is no tax paid and no quality control other than the checks the coffeeshop does on purchase.

If the police find a growing operation or a large amount in transit to a coffeeshop, they will charge anyone involved and the penalties are severe.

Even though coffeeshops had been around since 1976, they only received legal status in 1992 when the AHOJ-G(BI) regulations came into force These regulations stand for:

  • A – Geen Affichering of reclame – No Advertising
  • H – Geen Harddrugs – No Hard drugs
  • O – Geen Overlast – No Noise
  • J  – Geen verkoop en geen toegang aan Jongeren onder de 18 – No sales or entry to People under 18
  • G – Geen verkoop van meer dan 5 Gram per dag per persoon – No sales of more than 5 grams per person per day
  • B – Geen coffeeshops in de Buurt van scholen – No coffee shops in the Area of schools (from 14th Jan 2014. Applies to Amsterdam only)
  • I – Geen verkoop aan niet Ingezetenen – No sales to non Residents (from 1 Jan 2013 Does not apply to Amsterdam)

In addition to adhering to the AHOJ-G criteria, coffeeshops also have to have a licence to operate from the local authority who can add additional requirements to the licence.

If coffeeshops obey these rules, and have a maximum stock of up to 500 grams, they will be allowed to operate in relative peace, a policy which is officially known as a ‘gedoogbeleid’ or tolerance policy.

This policy does not, however, extend to the wholesale purchase of the supplies (bud, hash, joints and edibles) that coffeeshops need. This side of the business remains completely illegal, and the laws enforced as strongly as anywhere. This means that coffeeshops are effectively two businesses; a legal and transparent ‘front door’ business and an illegal and opaque ‘back door’ business.

There are obviously many problems with this system. Firstly, instead of reducing criminal cannabis production, it increases it, as the coffeeshops have to get their supplies somewhere, and if the only supplies available are illegal then that’s what the coffeeshops will buy.

In the beginning this was actually not too problematic as coffeeshops would buy their supplies from small local growers who would grow ten or fifteen plants to sell to their local coffeeshops for the love of it as well as to earn a bit of money. This meant that that the coffeeshops would get a varied supply of good quality weed.

However, from 2004 the environment for coffeeshops and growers got a lot worse (which is another article in itself). Small, local growers were scared off as the police started to target them. The inevitable happened, small growers disappeared and the only people who were prepared to carry on were the big criminal gangs with large commercial grows. This meant that as well as supporting criminal gangs, coffeeshops received far worse quality cannabis.

Coffeeshops (should) check their cannabis for obvious faults such as mould or infestation. They can’t however, check for the sort of growing conditions or the sort of chemicals used to grow the cannabis. It has meant that there is now an obvious reduction in the quality of cannabis from all coffeeshops, although there are one or two exceptions.

Another problem caused by this policy is the stock limit of 500 grams. Obviously, a busy coffeeshop in the centre of Amsterdam sells far more than 500 grams a day. Some coffeeshops sell in excess of 4-5KG of cannabis a day. That, of course, means that some coffeeshops have to restock 6 or 7 times every day!

All coffeeshops need to have what is known as a “stash” in the near vicinity of the coffeeshop where their main supplies are stored. That also means that someone has to take supplies (up to 500 grams at a time) from the stash to the shop.

You don’t have to sit in a coffeeshop for long to see the person bringing the supplies. That, of course, means that the ‘courier’ is a sitting duck to be mugged.

Although the tax office receives VAT at the standard rate for the cannabis when it is purchased, because cannabis is illegal the Government receives no other taxes for the cannabis and basically hands the tax it could have received to criminal gangs instead.

This policy of having a legal front door and an illegal back door is accepted by everybody as being completely crazy!

This situation was never meant to happen, of course – In 1976 when cannabis was decriminalised in Holland, the then government intended to completely legalise cannabis within two to three years. That never happened. Since then, as seems to happen with cannabis legislation all over the world, inertia set in. Governments for various reasons find it impossible to change the situation, and this is what happened in Holland. Coffeeshops developed, but the law never really changed. Until now.

In the last 2017 elections the main political parties (D66 (liberal), SP (socialist), PVDA (labour), PVDD (animal rights), Groen Links (green left)) said they wanted to legalise and regulate the wholesale production and distribution of cannabis to coffeeshops. The other main party the VVD (conservatives) said they wanted “sensible regulation”. Only the CDA (christian democrats), the CU (christian union), PVV (Geert Wilders) and the SGP (far right) said they wanted to re-criminalise cannabis and ban coffeeshops.

So, after the electons in order to form a working government, the coalition ( the VVD, D66, CDA and CU) decided to set up a commission to look into how to set up such a system and run an experiment in 5-10 areas for 4 years. This week, (six months later) the commission published their initial thoughts.

The commision said:
  • There should be between five to ten government approved commercial growers to ensure variety and continuity of supply.
  • Cannabis should be grown, processed, and packaged in the one facility.
  • Growers should know about cannabis and be able to grow at least 20 varieties.
  • The growing facilities should be well secured, including transportation.
  • Growers must be able to set up in 12 months
  • There should be no limits to the THC content of the cannabis (the government wanted a 15% limit)
  • Each coffeeshop should have 20 varieties of cannabis and 15 varieties of hash
  • Coffeeshops should be allowed to stock a days supply of products.
  • Imported Cannabis and hash will not be allowed.
  • For the first six months, the coffeeshops current system should run in parallel to the new system until continuous supply from the new growers can be guaranteed.
  • Prices should conform to market norms. Too low prices would encourage consumption and too high prices would drive consumers to the black market.
  • Coffeeshops will only be allowed to buy their supplies from government approved growers
  • The experiment should take place in a large number of areas large and small (the government wanted only 5-10 medium sized areas to take part)
  • If successful the experiment should continue for longer than the initial 4 years (the government wanted the experiment to stop after 4 years whether successful or not with a 6-month wind-down period)
  • Products should be prepackaged.
  • Packaging should be;
  • Child safe and resealable
  • Should not appeal to children
  • Should be sealed with a tamper-proof seal
  • On the packaging it should state;
  • The name of the product
  • Contains the warning “Contains cannabis. Keep out of reach of children.”
  • Contains the warning “Do not drive motor vehicles or use heavy machinery under the influence of cannabis.”
  • The weight in grams
  • The universal THC symbol
  • The amount of THC and CBD in percentage
  • The unique code of the track and trace system
  • The date of packing and the use by date
  • In the package there should be a leaflet containing
  • The recommended method of use by the product
  • Advice not to smoke either pure or with tobacco
  • Warning that effects may take two hours or more to take effect
  • Warning that cannabis may be harmful to health in particular mental health
  • Warning that cannabis may be extra harmful to pregnant women or breastfeeding women
  • Warning that cannabis can lead to misuse and addiction
  • That the product does not contain pesticides
  • Any other requirements that the product meets

There is obviously a lot to criticise with these initial findings, the most important of which include: will people involved in the illegal market (after all, they have the knowledge and experience) be able to become registered growers? what about imported bud and hash? Around 25% of sales are imported hash.

The general consensus is it would be impossible to set up hash production within 12 month – different hashes are dependant on where and how they are grown and this is something that could not be replicated in The Netherlands. Finally having 5 – 10 big growers is really not enough. We should be embracing the wealth of knowledge and the variety that exists within the small-scale growing community.

These are just a couple of the worries that exist around this report, but as it’s only the initial report, hopefully the commission will listen to the worries and advice of the whole community, consumers, coffeeshops and growers alike.

The experiment is expected to start within two years, although the areas where it will take part has not been decided. It is probable that Amsterdam will not take part in the experiment because it is too large a market and it has an unusually large amount of tourists compared to the rest of The Netherlands.

It should be an interesting couple of years seeing how a country can (hopefully) satisfactorily set up a completely legal from seed to sale system.


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