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The Highs and Lows of the Dutch Cannabis Experiment

Dutch Cannabis

Cannabis in Holland, once the only country in the world where you could enjoy it legally, has taken some hits lately. It was already underway in 2012, when authorities raided and shut down the High Times Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, where it had been held since 1988. Two years later, the government refused to grant the American media and event company a permit to stage the Cup, effectively banning it from doing business in Dutch cannabis country.

The dream of a society where stoners could sit in coffee shops and openly smoke ganja was being challenged. Regulations imposed by a government increasingly uncomfortable with the global spotlight on the Dutch cannabis industry began to have their own strange and often unintended impact.

Since 2010, the Dutch government has been trying to come to terms with several realities: Its legitimate cannabis market, which still draws tourists, is actually a gray market that relies on loopholes in the law; countries around the world, including in Europe, are moving closer to legalizing marijuana; and the black market remains an ever present threat.

A concerted effort to rezone the nation’s coffee shop trade, particularly in Amsterdam, has forced the closing of beloved shops like Mellow Yellow (for being too close to a private hairdressing trade school). Still, the Dutch are not shy about cannabis tourism, as it draws as many as 25% of the tourists visiting the country. Last year, Amsterdam had five million more tourists than it did in 2012.

The “Weed-pass” law, also introduced in 2012, which was intended to limit the tourist trade linked to ganja, has been widely abandoned in most of the country, except for border towns like Maastricht. Those passes, essentially “licenses” given to locals who wanted to toke, hoped to limit the number of tourists who flock to the country for its legal cannabis and coffee shop culture. The net effect of these policies has concentrated the cannabis trade even more in and around Amsterdam.

The number of shops in Amsterdam where you can order cannabis and hash from menus and sit and smoke socially with others has declined by more than half over the past 20 years, from 350 in 1995 to 167 in 2017. The closures have happened for a variety of reasons, from violating rules about proximity to grade schools to unrelated financial and legal problems. As no new licenses are being issued, the remaining shops must deal with higher traffic. This requires restocking several times a day, because local regulations place strict limits on how much cannabis can be kept on the premises at any one time, which leads to more robberies of couriers and shops. It also increases black market street trade, particularly to tourists.

In addition, last fall health insurers suddenly began canceling Dutch cannabis coverage for patients. This has put Bedrocan, Holland’s largest producer of medical marijuana, in a quandary. Patients whose insurers had reimbursed them for cannabis in the past now have to purchase it from coffee shops instead.

Facing decreased sales, Bedrocan decided to seek other markets outside of Holland and applied for a German grow license in April. If selected, Bedrocan will have an instant market right across the border for its products.

The Dutch cannabis market is now in a state of flux. The government would prefer to define marijuana as a “recreational substance,” not a drug. However, with insurers refusing to recognize its medical efficacy (at least temporarily), the entire question of legal marijuana has been thrown into a conundrum.

Drug policy reforms in countries across the EU (primarily in Spain, Portugal and Germany) and in the U.S. and Canada are driving change in Holland. Legislative efforts to regulate the marijuana producers that supply the coffee shops has passed the lower house of the Congress, but it’s unclear if the First Chamber (the equivalent of the Senate) will agree. Majority support for this reform is still not quite there. However, the forces now moving in Holland and elsewhere in the EU generally tolerate the idea of legitimizing the industry in a way that doesn’t rock the boat.

How that will affect the coffee shops is uncertain. It’s likely that it will be transformed, as the cannabis industry has been elsewhere, into one that’s more regulated and more expensive to enter, where volume and bigger bottom lines become more of a necessity.

When it comes to cannabis, Holland is no longer the exotic hothouse anomaly it once was. If there’s a victim here, it may well be that the old feel and vibe of the coffee shop scene is changing, if not gone.

Update: Since this article was published in Issue 28, High Times announced they would be returning to Amsterdam for the traditional Thanksgiving week Cannabis Cup on Nov. 19-22.

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