A new era is coming for the famous Dutch cannabis coffeeshops.
The Dutch Senate voted this week in favor of a four-year experiment that will force such shops to buy cannabis only from legal, city-approved growers, starting as soon as 2021 in ten cities. The ultimate goal is to bring “transparency” to a decades-old system based on tolerance in which coffee shops have been able to sell cannabis but from illegal suppliers. With the bill, called “Controlled Cannabis Supply Chain Experiment Act,” the government responded to cities who complained that the tolerance policy was “causing problems with public order, safety, public health and crime-fighting.”
Vera Bergkamp, a House representative for the liberal party D66, voted in favor of the Act. She said the aim is not to eradicate the coffeeshops but to see how “a closed coffee shop chain can be realized.” She said she hoped it will be “successful” and that “the next cabinet will regulate cannabis growth nationwide.”
“This experiment is a first step towards such nationwide regulation,” Bergkamp told Cannabis Wire.
Bart Vollenberg, spokesperson for Cannabis Connect, one of the unions that was in charge of negotiating with the government, told Cannabis Wire that the approach is conservative.
“In Holland, we have been doing this for forty years now, so for many of us it is too little too late,” Vollenberg, said.
The bill, which already had been approved in January by the House of Representatives, needed final approval from the Senate to move ahead. And on Tuesday, the upper house voted in favor of the experiment.
While Holland legalized the personal use and possession of up to five grams of cannabis more than 40 years ago, its cultivation is not permitted, which means that all coffee shops, which are tolerated but not legal, obtain their products from illegal suppliers.
The Dutch use the word ‘Gedogen’ to describe this tension. “It means looking the other way when politics is too slow at changing the law and pragmatism takes over,” Vollenberg said. “Something that is illegal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.”
During the four years of the trial, ten selected municipalities will be in charge of collecting data on the impact of the experiment on crime, safety, nuisance, and public health.
The government will give a license to ten growers, which will be the only legal growers in the country for the coffeeshops in the ten designated cities, which are Arnhem, Almere, Breda, Groningen, Heerlen, Hellevoetsluis, Maastricht, Nijmegen, Tilburg and Zaanstad. Growers will each have to produce at least ten different types of plants, to allow for variety, and the coffee shops will select their preferences.
In the experiment, growers are the main actors of the chain. According to the bill, they become “responsible for the further processing, packaging and transportation of hemp and hashish” and “must also maintain a balanced and transparent administration with the Coffee Shop owners.”
The government hopes that “market forces will soon determine the offer and the price.”
A first draft of the bill was submitted in November 2018 and it sparked long discussions between Coffee Shop unions and the government. This bill is the result of a “hard fought compromise,” said Vollenberg, adding, “We had to give up on a lot.”
For instance, the bill says that “the content of active substances (THC and CBD) must be clearly stated on the packaging. The coffee shops sell the pre-packaged products as supplied by the grower.” Vollenberg, who owns two coffee shops, one of which is in Almere, a city chosen for the test, fears this will change the culture of consuming cannabis. “Consumers like to buy their cannabis by looking at it, smelling it. Just like you would for a vegetable. You can’t do that if it’s pre-packaged.”
But Vollenberg also thinks that lawmakers were overdue for a decision to be made about the cannabis industry. “More and more criminals are involved in the business and this has to change,” he said, referencing the illegal supply and other gray areas. He also thinks that Holland, as a result of its long history with cannabis, has a lot to contribute to the budding global industry. “There is a lot of knowledge here about growing Cannabis. We may not be as good as in California, but better than Canada.”
Many cannabis products will be excluded from the experiment, such as extracts and edibles. The resin, or “hashish,” will be allowed but much of it is likely to disappear from the shelves since the bill only allows Dutch hashish. Currently about a quarter of the cannabis supply is imported from Morocco, Nepal, or Kashmir.
Bergkamp doesn’t think that the cannabis supply will decrease during the experiment.”The growers and coffee shops are in close contact so the shop owners are able to explain the grower exactly what forms of cannabis they would like to order. This experiment is formed in a way that it resembles the current tolerated situation as much as possible,” she said.
Depending on the results of the experiment, the government might decide to implement it throughout the country.
Mart Atema, a manager at a coffee-shop in Groningen, in the north part of the country, said he was really happy to see that the whole chain could be legalised. “Right now, the weed we are selling is not tested in labs, so we don’t even know what we’re selling,” he said. Atema added that sellers don’t even know the location where the cannabis was grown—“In attics, basements, garages, gardens,” he said.
Still, Atema notes, it will be a major change to drop suppliers whose products are liked by his customers, and with whom he has worked for the past thirty years.
** This story was updated on November 15 at 10:45 p.m. ET to reflect added comments by House Representative Vera Bergkamp. **