Dutch Drug Policy: Two steps forward and one step back?
Turbulent times ahead for the cannabis community in the Netherlands: politicians gear up to both make cannabis more accessible for some, and more out of reach for others.
On one side of the fence, liberal politicians are eyeing the legalisation and regulation of cannabis. It may be a surprise to some, but the cultivation and sale of cannabis is actually illegal in Netherlands. Coffee shops are technically not legal and operate under a policy of tolerance that applies to soft drugs. It also means that coffee shops are still forced to obtain their supply from an unregulated grey market.
Frits Bolkestein, a retired member of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, has put forward a proposal that would see the government take a much more central role in the production and sale of cannabis. Particularly in times of economic struggle, taxing and regulating cannabis is an attractive option. The Dutch government is already collecting annually some 400 million Euros in taxes from coffee shops, but that number could well increase if the currently prohibited cultivation were to be subjected to taxes.
Bolkestein is a member of the Epicurus Foundation, which is dedicated to improve drug policies. His proposal would see the government award licenses to cannabis growers, allowing for strict quality guidelines to be met and regulated, as well as for legal transactions between cultivator and coffee shop to be made. The proposal also suggests that coffee shop employees should go through mandatory training, ensuring that they can properly inform customers about their products.
This proposal is currently backed by 21 municipalities, a significant number that demonstrates the growing support for change and more progressive drug policies. The proposal comes with wide political support and is likely to be largely debated by the government. But at the same time, a number of politicians are pushing in the opposite direction.
As of January 2014, coffee shops in Amsterdam that are situated within 250 meters of a school will have to close during school hours, and ultimately have their license withdrawn. In what has been mapped out as a three-phase process, some 31 are going to be closed down permanently.
This is one of the latest announcements by Amsterdam’s Mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, that indicate the central government is going to crack down on cannabis use. Whilst probably a sensible idea on the face of it, it has a few people worried that this may be the beginning of a chain of restrictions that will be closing in on Amsterdam and other forward thinking cities.
Earlier this year, a legal requirement known as the „weed pass“ was introduced to coffee shops. It would allow coffee shops to only sell to legal residents of the Netherlands. For obvious reasons - namely an increase in street dealing - the plan was largely dropped, and today is only enforced in the Dutch border region.
Under this system, any resident who wished to use a coffee shop had to register with the government for a pass. It is an initiative that has failed abysmally, with local policing agencies reporting a boom in street crime due to people turning to street dealers. As a result the central government has dropped the requirement for residents to register, but they are still adamant to keep tourists out.
So why are many Dutch considering the school range ban as the beginning of the end? Many see it a hollow law, and an excuse to make things difficult for coffee shops. A representative of the local association of cannabis retailers told Dutch News that the distance from schools is not the issue, the policy is directed at under 18’s, something that is already heavily enforced by coffee shops. As expressed by the mayor of Amsterdam, the law will have no measurable impact on youth consumption, but is sure to cause problems for coffee shop owners. It appears that the government is just trying to put obstacles in their path, which only enforces the idea that it is trying to see the eventual close of coffee shops, something it has been trying to do for years – despite the fact that all evidence suggests that it would lead to a massive increase in crime and deal a blow to the economy.
The struggle continues about the future direction of the Dutch drug policy. Let us hope politicians like Frits Bolkestein will prevail at the end of the day, not letting the Netherlands slip back into the days of street dealing.