Netherlands: 'Fall of the Wall' Moment for European Cannabis as Legalization Project Kicks In
Four year pilot project launched whereby Dutch consumers can legally buy cannabis in after years of the plant being stuck in the ‘grey zone’.
Max Daly, Vice Magazine's International Drug Editor
This article first appeared in Vice Magazine on 21 December 2023.
Despite its famed coffee shops, in the Netherlands, for the last 45 years cannabis has officially been illegal to possess, sell and grow. But things are changing.
Since 15 December 2023, weed smokers have been buying their first batches of legally grown, legally sold cannabis in 19 shops in two cities, Breda and Tilburg, in the south of the country.
It is the start of a four year experiment which by next year will see 10 licensed weed growing farms supply 80 of the country's 550 coffee shops with cannabis flower, hash and ready-rolled spliffs in 11 jurisdictions—including part of Amsterdam.
“It’s a fall of the Berlin Wall moment for European cannabis,” Alastair Moore, a cannabis entrepreneur and founder of The Hanway Company, told VICE News.
“What was brave and progressive in the 1980s needed to be updated. Reliance on blackmarket supply created a legal murkiness that tainted ‘good’ actors and limited their ability to operate transparently and live with peace of mind.
“Overnight, after years of lobbying, legislation drafting, public tenders, implementation, delays and setbacks of course, the system of control has changed. It has started the clock ticking: five years from now the world of European cannabis will be a very different place.”
Dutch consumers will still be able to buy cannabis in coffee shops, albeit now quality-controlled, packaged with health warnings, and legally produced,” said Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
“But it marks a landmark moment in the European drug reform journey. For all the reform being debated and implemented across the continent, this is actually the first time since the prohibition era began that legally produced non-medical cannabis has been made available in the EU.”
Since the 1980s, the sale of weed in coffee shops has merely been tolerated, as long as drug users and coffee shops stick to some basic rules. Authorities have turned a blind eye to the unregulated growers who supply each of the country’s 550 weed shops with around half a ton of cannabis each year.
Such a big grey area in a lucrative €1.1 billion industry was never going to last forever, especially as other countries in Europe, such as Germany, Malta and Switzerland, are following the lead of North America in moving to regulate, rather than criminalise, the cannabis trade.
The 10 chosen cannabis growing companies, which have been subjected to stringent background checks, were whittled down from 200 applicants to 50 in 2020, before the final 10 were chosen at random by lottery.
“It was quite a surreal experience. I remembered especially the picture of the first customer in Colorado on January 1st, 2014. I wanted to be that person,” said Mauro Picavet, editor-in-chief of Dutch weed website cannabisindustrie.nl, the first customer in the Netherlands to buy legally produced cannabis, at 11am last Friday.
“So I stepped up and ordered the RS11 from Aardachtig. The budtender thought I was done and that I just wanted to buy that one gram, but I told him to hold up. I wanted more. I also bought Pink Sandy and Limun Chullo from Aardachtig, Ice Cream Cake from Fyta and Wedding Cake from CanAdelaar. Everyone clapped and I proceeded to the tobacco-free smoking area to sit down and roll a pure joint of RS11.
“Now everyone can get weed grown to perfection. And clean. There are no illegal pesticides used, bugs, or spray with other contaminants. It's a big deal for consumers.”
Coffee shops will be able to sell remaining stocks from unregulated suppliers for six months, then they must only sell cannabis from licensed suppliers. Under the trial, the weed being sold, and the coffee shops selling it, will be heavily monitored, as will the companies which were given licences to grow cannabis.
It’s a big moment, but also one rife with uncertainties. Will the Dutch learn from the mistakes made during legalisation across the Atlantic? How will criminal gangs react to their profits being taken away from them? And will the country’s newly elected far right party try to strangle the experiment at birth?
Moore said the Dutch weed experiment offers a more cautious approach to weed legalisation compared to North America, where the authorities faced problems such as massive oversupply in Canada. However, the Netherlands will need to tread a fine line between protecting public health while making sure the government has a product that can compete against the black market.
“What we’re seeing in the Netherlands is a very European solution for the cannabis question. While this is innately a cautious one, at odds with the approach in most of the U.S., it is also a sensible one,” said Moore, the European cannabis entrepreneur.
And what about the victory last month in the Dutch national elections of far right, anti-Islam, anti-drugs politician Geert Wilders?
“He is not a fan of coffee shops, to put it mildly,” said Hollemans. “He is anti-coffee shops, in fact he’s anti everything connected with cannabis culture.” He said if Wilders tried to shut down the trial it is likely the government would be sued by the licenced cannabis growing companies who have already invested millions of euros. The risk comes at the end of the experiment, when one of Wilders’s ministers could decide, whatever the results, that it has been a failure.
There is also a question about how organised crime gangs with tentacles in the Dutch weed industry will react to market regulation. While hardened criminals are unlikely to be running coffee shops, they are involved in cannabis production, according to drug law expert Kaj Hollemans.
“There are no hardened criminals listed as coffee shop owners, because the shops are heavily regulated. But on the production side, some growers are engaged in all sorts of illegal activities.”
However, because the trial involves just 15 percent of coffee shops, unregulated growers will only lose a small part of their market share. “I don’t think anyone is worried that criminals are going to react badly to this,” said Hollemans.