The Holland Bureau: There’s export and there’s ‘export’

The Netherlands is clamping down on small marijuana growers because of unsubstantiated export figures, writes the Holland Bureau‘s Giles Scott-Smith.

Since 2008 the ‘war on drugs’ in the Netherlands has been waged by the Taskforce Aanpak Georganiseerde Henneptelt (TGH: Taskforce against Organised Marijuana Cultivation). Looking to take the whole soft drug debate away from being an issue of public health towards being purely about (organised) crime, it is the TGH that has provided some of the statistical ammunition for the ongoing conservative political campaign against the coffeeshops. But as recent reports have indicated, the stats just don’t add up.
Led by police chief Max Daniel, the TGH declared in late 2008 that the illegal export of Dutch marijuana amounted to around 500,000 kilos a year, worth approximately €2bn. If gathered in one location, this was the equivalent of the entire province of Utrecht covered in illegal plantations. The announcement did the rounds of the national media and became accepted as ‘fact’. The soft drug situation was out of control and Daniel’s TGH was leading the fight-back.
But there was one problem – it wasn’t true. To mark the parliament’s wietpas debate at the beginning of March, both the Groene Amsterdammer (‘Nederland Importland’, 1-3-2012) and KRO’s Reporter (De Nederwietoorlog, 2-3-2012) took a hard look at the details. In the Groene Joeri Boom and Reinier Bijman took the TGH story apart piece by piece. By raising the criminal threat of illegal marijuana growers, control over the issue has been taken away from The Ministry of Health by the Ministry of Security and Justice (“repression versus harm reduction”). While the national police corps (KLPD) was talking of an export figure of somewhere between 20% and 80% of Dutch illegal production (i.e. ‘we have no idea’) and the 2008 National Threat Analysis declared a 15-74% range (i.e. ‘we have no idea either’), Daniel and the TGH launched with 80% and nothing less. Thanks to a slack media and a body of conservative politicians looking to pose for a cause, since then its been a one-way street. As Boom and Bijman point out, the 80% scare figure has been kicked around in parliament not only by Christian Democrat and Christian Union MPs but also some of their colleagues from the PvdA and D66. Attempts by the public-health-research Trimbos Institute to question the facts and the motives have not gained much traction in the current Dutch political environment. Meanwhile it has been promoting the European Drug Survey to get a clearer picture of the ‘users’.
By turning it into a major security issue and generating conservative political support, the THG has since then stomped on the (mainly small-scale) marijuana growers across the nation. Supplies to coffeeshops from within the Netherlands have apparently been hit hard – with the effect that the ‘official’ market now needs to be supplied from abroad. As the KRO Reporter documentary showed, the number of plantations in the northern part of Belgium had multiplied in the last couple of years as serious growers move operations south of the border. The Netherlands isn’t exporting the stuff, its importing it.
So while the rest of the world realises a war on drugs is so ’80s’ and out of date, over the past four years the Dutch security state has been gearing up for a new campaign. The Global Commission on Drug Policy‘s report from 2011, that emphasised once again that the best way to deal with the issue is through monitored legalisation, does not get much attention here (and one of the Commission’s members, Richard Branson, was interviewed on Dutch tv a few weeks ago to make this point strongly himself). However, the irony doesn’t stop yet. The Netherlands may not be the source of the stuff, but it is the source of the apparatus needed for the stuff – not least, the seeds. The paraphernalia and seed industry is booming, not surprisingly in nations with high youth unemployment like Spain.
And then there is the fact that since 1999 the Ministry of Health itself has sanctioned a Dutch company to produce medicinal marijuana – for export. The aim was to ensure that patients who used soft drugs to cope with their condition had a regulated supply. Needless to say, the market is booming. As De Pers reported some time ago, Bedrocan, currently the sole supplier for the Ministry’s Bureau Medicinale Cannabis, is now producing around 150 kilos for pharmacies in Italy, Finland, Germany, and Poland. Cannabis is simply one of the best forms of medication for those suffering from problems with the nervous system, Gilles de la Tourette, or even AIDS. The market in the United States has taken off in recent years, with 16 states now allowing for the distribution of medicinal cannabis. It is of course up to the relevant authorities to ensure that the system operates according to legitimate methods – the rest can just take care of itself.
In the past few years Bedrocan has grown into a kind of international consultancy firm, providing advice on the pros and cons of such a public-private-run medicinal cannabis operation to other nations looking to loosen up their rules and take advantage of the benefits. Meanwhile, the Netherlands slides further towards a narrow-minded conservatism. In the real world Economics Minister Maxime Verhagen should be taking up Bedrocan as one of his innovation champions in the Dutch economy. But I guess politically we left the ‘real world’ behind some time in June 2010.

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