Holland’s Cannabis Law

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As Washington, Colorado, and other states set forth legislation regulating cannabis, it is important to remember how institutions in the past dealt with cannabis. Review of a veteran of cannabis policy, such as Holland, could offer wisdom and useful model.  After all, no need to reinvent the wheel?  For many, Amsterdam immediately comes to mind as a bastion of legalized recreational drugs.  So, how do they handle legalized cannabis in the Netherlands?

Surprisingly, the answer is that by-and-large, they don’t.  Though you wouldn’t know it from the notorious presence of “coffee shops” peddling “soft drugs” throughout the county, cannabis is illegal in the Netherlands.  Under the Opium Act, the Dutch law that covers psychotropic drugs, Cannabis is a controlled substance: production, selling, and possession are misdemeanors punishable by fines and liable to prosecution.  Following the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s, the law was revised in 1976 to recognize a distinction between cannabis and other “hard drugs” like heroin, which had become a big problem by the 1970’s.   It created two classes of drugs, Schedule I (heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, LSD) and Schedule II (cannabis and hashish). It also established the “coffee shop.”

The Netherlands model of decriminalization was sparked by a desire to separate the market for cannabis, as a risk and harm reduction measure, and an effort to combat drug trafficking.  Under a Gedoogbeleid, or tolerance policy, possession for personal use of 5 grams or less, and cultivation of 5 plants or less is not prosecuted.  The non-enforcement policy has led to reliance upon non-enforcement, and courts have ruled against the government when individual cases were prosecuted.

Coffee shops may sell cannabis under strict conditions.  Coffee shops may not cause a nuisance, sell hard drugs, sell cannabis to minors, advertise drugs, or sell large amounts per transaction (up to five grams).  A 1995 amendment to the Opium Act reduced the amount allowed to be sold form 30 to 5 grams to address the problem with drug tourism.  Municipalities can decide whether they allow coffee shops within their borders, and how many.  They can also impose additional requirements on coffee shops.  Maastricht, among other cities, has banned foreigners from coffee shops since 2005.

Historically, there has been no regulation of the cannabis production market, unlike the highly structured systems in the United States.  Authorities ignored where the cannabis came from. In 2011, new laws were issued targeting all marijuana growers.  The government declared anyone who grew with electric lights, prepared soil, “selected” seeds or ventilation would be considered “professional.”  Professionals risk major penalties, including eviction and blacklisting from government-provided housing.  One result is that coffee shops are increasingly buying cannabis on the black market from criminal organizations.

While the new laws are seen as a repealing of tolerance policy, according to the Transform Drug Policy Foundation,

“most of the more regressive measures have either not been implemented, have been subsequently abandoned, or have had only marginal impacts. Additionally, there is growing public support for wider, progressive reform, including a system of legal cannabis regulation similar to that adopted in Uruguay, and efforts are underway by numerous municipalities to establish such models of production and supply.”

The highly publicized legalization of cannabis in the United States has also changed public perception and dialogue on the issue.  Legalization of soft drugs is supported by 60% of the Netherlands, but is hindered by United Nations treaties and international pressures.  The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs prohibits cultivation and trade of naturally-occurring drugs such as cannabis, and the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances requires states to criminalize illicit drug possession.

But, spurred on by the development of the criminal element of the black market, and inspired by legalization and regulation efforts abroad, Dutch municipalities are trying to do something about it.  In 2014, Heerlen Mayor Paul Depla and others organized a cannabis conference to discuss regulation and encourage national debate on cannabis policy. 53 mayors signed a petition seeking permission from the Government to start experimenting with regulated cannabis growing to supply the coffee shops.  “Colorado has learned form the mistakes the Netherlands has made,” said Depla.  They are now hoping to emulate the models developing in the United States and Uruguay.

As it turns out, quite the opposite of being something of a role model for countries embarking on the legalization of cannabis, the Netherlands now finds itself following our lead.  It just goes to show that sometimes, you do need to reinvent the wheel.


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