On Monday evening, March 16, Ben Van Essen brought a roll of white tape to work. With a mask and gloves on, he used the tape to mark several dividing lines, every six feet, on the floor of the cannabis “coffee shop” Metamorphose in Groningen, Holland, where he works as a manager.
“With the coronavirus, we have to make sure our customers respect the distance,” he told Cannabis Wire. He then installed a plexiglass window on his counter and placed one bottle of hand sanitizer at the entrance of the shop and one at the counter.
“I let a maximum of four people in,” he said, “and they have to leave as soon as they have bought their products. They can’t use the bathroom either. They buy their joint, hash, and they leave.” With social distancing, Van Essen says the shop has lost its appeal, but he appreciates still having a job. He cleans his credit card terminal every thirty minutes.
A day earlier, on Sunday, March 15, as the coronavirus proliferated in Holland—with 1,135 people testing positive and 20 people dead by that time, according to the World Health Organization—Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced at 5:35 p.m. an emergency closure. All the schools, daycare outlets, cafés, and restaurants, as well as the “sports and fitness clubs, saunas, sex clubs, and coffee shops,” would close, starting at precisely 6 p.m. that evening and at least until April 6th.
Van Essen was getting ready to close his shop for at least three weeks when he saw a long line starting to form outside, people hoping to stock up on cannabis before the shutdown.
In Holland, it is still forbidden to grow cannabis, but selling it has been tolerated in coffee shops since the 1970s.
“Just like people rushed to the grocery store to buy toilet paper, here they also stocked up on cannabis,” Van Essen explained. In Dutch, such hoarding is called Hamsteren, “from the hamsters who store their food,” Van Essen said.
He served hundreds of customers in that half hour. Each person in the line bought the maximum amount allowed, 5g of cannabis, Van Essen said. His staff restocked many times, but he ran out of supply and closed the shop shortly after 6.
The fear of the street dealers
Outside, street dealers furtively distributed their phone numbers to people waiting in the long coffee shop line, which stretched more than a block. Many videos of the line were posted on social media, showing customers apparently taken aback, even as they grabbed the cards.
In other cities, like Haarlem, Heerhugowaard, Nijmegen, and Breda, the same scene unfolded. And as the cannabis shops across the country pulled their curtains down that evening, Margriet Van der Wal, chair of the union Actieve Bredase Coffeeshops (ABC) in Breda, began to panic.
She saw the risk of street dealers overtaking the cannabis market during the coronavirus pandemic. “The only legal and safe way to get your cannabis in Holland is in coffee shops,” she told Cannabis Wire. “They play a big role in harm reduction and public safety.”
That Sunday night, after the Prime Minister’s announcement, and after closing her shop, Van der Wal sent a letter to her mayor, Paul Depla. She asked for authorization to sell at the counter, like a takeout restaurant.
“We are well-connected with our mayors. We communicate a lot, and directly,” she said. Indeed within the hour, she said, Depla replied that he was actively looking for a solution, along with other mayors. “We also do not want this measure to revive the street trade,” he wrote back to her. In a national effort, other coffee shop unions also reached out to their mayors.
The next day, on Monday March 16, at 4 p.m., representatives of the twenty-five safety-regions of Holland, created more than a decade ago as a disaster and crisis management tool for the central government, held a meeting with the nation’s Justice and Security Minister, Ferdinand Grapperhaus, to further develop coronavirus containment measures at the local level. They talked about school closures and also about the coffee shops. They warned the government about the risk of dealers getting a hold on consumers.
“Will the customers return to the coffee shop? It is difficult to get the ghost back into the bottle afterwards,” Hubert Bruls, mayor of Nijmegen and spokesperson for the group of representatives, told Dutch media outlets.
Less than three hours later, at 6.40 p.m., the government amended the regulation on its website and allowed the coffee shops to stay open—as takeouts, in order to implement social distancing. “Coffee shops can remain open for orders that are collected,” read the amended regulation.
Vera Bergkamp, house representative for the political party Democrats 66, told Cannabis Wire that “in the current situation, it is the right decision” to let the coffee shops be open in order to sell cannabis to go. “Otherwise, the illegal market could ramp up,” she said, “with unforeseen consequences to safe and public health.” She added that “cannabis retailers have to adhere to rules regarding hygiene and keeping distance between people in line.”
When Van Essen reopened the shop, he saw a dealer on his scooter waiting to do business at his door. “He thought we were closed and was waiting for customers. I scared him away.” The shop manager hopes the coronavirus crisis will be a “big eye-opener for the Dutch government on how cannabis, and the coffee shops, are important for the society.”
New measures to stop the pandemic among the consumers
On Wednesday, in a two-page letter addressed to the Association of Netherland Municipalities (VNG), and co-signed by thirteen other coffee shop unions, Margriet Van Der Wal of ABC laid out four suggestions for keeping the coffee shops open and containing the pandemic at the same time. The priority, she wrote, is to limit the amount of contact between employees and customers, and also reduce the contacts between the suppliers and the shop.
For one thing, the coffee shop unions are asking to increase the maximum quantity of products they can sell per day per customer, from 5g to 30g. At 5g, “it means that they have to visit a coffee shop at least twice a week,” she wrote, which increases the risk of contamination.
They also want their daily shop supply, currently limited to 500g, to be raised, arguing that with a higher volume of sales, employees working to resupply the shops are forced into more contact with customers that could be carrying COVID-19.
“In addition to the risk of contamination,” she wrote, “they run the risk of being robbed during transport of the cannabis products.” With social distancing and self-isolation, there is less traffic on the roads and thus the transporters are more noticeable, the unions suggest.
In order to limit contact with contaminated notes and coins, coffee shop owners have asked their customers to pay by debit card only. But in the Dutch semi-legal market, growing and selling cannabis is illegal and suppliers can only be paid with cash. So, during the coronavirus crisis, the unions are asking for banks “to open and relax cash withdrawal options,” so they can withdraw bigger amounts of cash to pay their suppliers, without being flagged.
Finally, the unions want extended opening hours. During the coronavirus emergency period, the opening hours have been reduced and long lines have formed in front of the door. They wrote that this was increasing the risks of contamination.
In the Netherlands, like the United States, restrictive measures in response to virus spread are rapidly evolving. Bergkamp told Cannabis Wire that lawmakers are “closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation on a day by day basis. If for the sake of public health, other policies are necessary, we will adjust the rules.”
Van Der Wal said she hopes to hear from her local representatives in a few days. As of March 23, the Netherlands was the 7th most infected country in the European region, according to the WHO. On its website, the Dutch health ministry recorded 4,749 people who have been infected and 179 who have died, since the beginning of the crisis.