The long-awaited Dutch regulated “weed experiment” is set to begin next week, giving cannabis smokers the chance to try the nation’s first officially licenced marijuana, delivered openly to coffee shops in Breda and Tilburg through a controlled supply chain.
The experiment, which the government and industry first began preparing over three years ago, will last at least four years and eventually include 11 municipalities across the country including, possibly, part of Amsterdam. After that ministers will decide whether or not to make the cannabis market officially legal nationwide.
But establishing trust with the banks, who may not be able to hold money considered the proceeds of crime in every other EU state, and winning over politicians who actively want cannabis outlawed altogether, are problems.
The experiment could also destabilise the market by lending unfair advantage to those involved, and attract large numbers of visitors to coffeeshops that will struggle to meet a heightened demand.
The experiment aims to phase out the Dutch gedoogd (tolerated) policy that has kept cannabis legal to buy and sell, but officially illegal to produce and sell in bulk. This “front door, back door” system was introduced to draw a line between so-called “soft” and “hard” drugs in the 1970s, when Amsterdam became world renowned as a drug haven.
But this civic compromise has left the door open to continued criminal rule, with robberies, violence and money laundering still plaguing much of the industry. Consumers also don’t know exactly what they’re consuming, and the health service can’t know exactly what it might be treating. So now policymakers want that back door closed.
Breda’s mayor Paul Delpa, one of the main campaigners for a regulated system, told Dutch News the experiment is fundamentally about safety.
“The Dutch policy for weed is quite devious. People can buy it legally in coffeeshops (cafes that are licenced to sell it), but the production of the weed and the buying part (the back door) of the shop owners is illegal. That means there’s a big criminal world that thrives on producing the weed and selling it to the shops. That needs to change.”
Because the back door is illegal, there is no supervision on the quality and health aspects of the product that is sold either, Depla said. “If you know for a fact that people smoke weed, make sure it’s regulated and therefore safely grown and monitored on health issues. That means that our policy of tolerating an illegal backdoor has to stop.”
Ten growers have been given licences to provide exclusive produce to coffeeshops in Breda and Tilburg, starting December 15th, and then to coffeeshops in another eight municipalities next year, including Groningen and Maastricht. At that point, all the cafes in the experiment can only sell licenced products.
Running a scientific experiment is the only way to force an official change in the Dutch Opium Act, according to EU law. The experiment will test a track and trace system for all cannabis produced and sold, measure quality in official labs, and ensure security.
“From now on, coffeeshop entrepreneurs will be able to have invoices, and they will have a legal status,” said a spokesperson from the Bond van Cannabis Detaillisten (BCD), a coffeeshop lobby group.
“A lot of money and energy will be saved now that there is no longer any need to hunt down illegal growers.”
No coffee shop owners in Tilburg and Breda responded to requests for comment, but the manager of Best Friends coffeeshop in Amsterdam Oost says that an end to production and delivery disruption for his supplies would be a relief. Couriers and growers are sometimes tracked and robbed and this can be a serious problem, he says.
The banking problem
Currently, most of the Netherlands’ roughly 570 coffeeshops operate using debit transactions for customers, but must pay their suppliers in cash. The more customers use debit, the less cash coffeeshops have to pay their suppliers with. This means banks usually drop coffeeshops in the “high risk” category for money laundering and the financing of terrorism.
The Dutch cannabis industry could also face the same issues as US dispensaries, where the federal ban has made it near impossible for distributors and growers to bank their money in states that have legalised it.
In the EU, where cannabis is officially banned in all 27 member states, a fully legalised industry in one state could mean businesses having to stack their safes with cash.
“It remains to be seen how the collected tax will fare in the future. It is a tax on a legal product. And there are several countries in Europe that want to legalise cannabis, of which Germany is the largest country,” says the BCD.
Fred van de Wiel, CEO of Fyta, the first cannabis farm to be completely prepared to begin deliveries on December 15th, is unconcerned about the banks. “We have our permits, so no issues,” he told Dutch News. “I see no obstacles in that matter since we have an established frame-work of coffeeshops and distribution for over 40 years in the Netherlands.”
A head start?
Another concern is that coffeeshops in Tilburg and Breda will have an unfair advantage, with smokers looking to try what companies like Fyta say will be the highest quality cannabis anywhere in the Netherlands. Van de Wiel says Fyta’s biggest challenge now is simply meeting the sheer demand.
In preparation for the experiment the government investigated how much legally produced product is needed to supply each coffee shop and found an average 1.3 kilos per day.
Van de Wiel estimates the market sells somewhere between 200-450,000 kilos per year in retail stores, but notes the figure including the black market would be much higher. “Perhaps the figures will change because consumers prefer to travel to a region where legally produced and analysed products are sold.”
His weed won’t be available to tourists from outside the Netherlands, however. Currently, Amsterdam is the only city in the Netherlands where everyone over the age of 18 can buy cannabis products from a coffee shop. Elsewhere, only locals residents can use their facilities.
The far right PVV emerged as the biggest party in the recent Dutch general election and wants to ban marijuana outright. It has support from minor Christian parties SGP and ChristenUnie in this.
But Delpa is confident the experiment will be allowed to continue. “It took a long time to set up this experiment due to various factors, including political discussions, legal issues, and reaching agreement between the government, different municipalities and the coffeeshops.
“The complexity of legislation, international treaties, and the need for consensus have contributed to the delay. For now, the decision has been made that the big experiment will start halfway 2024 and will last 4 years.”
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