If you’ve ever been to the Netherlands, that title is a bit confusing; but the reality of the Netherlands is that it doesn’t operate how most think. In a recent turn of events; the Netherlands announced it would open legal and limited cannabis sales, to investigate a legal market.
Netherlands to open legal cannabis sales
Before we get into why this is a weird title, let’s first dive right into the current news story. The story started back in February of this year, when Netherlands Health Minister Ernst Kuipers announced what sounds like a cannabis pilot program; which would provide limited legal cannabis sales to specific areas of the country. He announced that Tilburg and Breda would be the first places to enjoy this new market; but that a total of about 10 municipalities could be involved.
For those unfamiliar with what a cannabis pilot program is, its essentially an experiment into how to run a cannabis sales market. We see the same thing in Switzerland, which approved a program for Zurich; and it’s expected that Germany will begin a similar setup within the next year. Germany had originally planned for a full sales market, but did a quick and extreme about-face when it became clear the EU would not allow it.
This idea of needing to accommodate the EU is important here, because it applies to the Netherlands as well. If Germany is not legally capable of pushing a policy the EU doesn’t agree with, the Netherlands can’t either. Meaning Germany now shows us the utmost of what can be expected for an EU country on the legal weed front. In terms of Switzerland, though the country chose to wade in with limited legal sales as a part of a pilot program; it has no need to care about EU policy, as its not a part of the EU.
The Netherlands has been planning this for a little while now, but met a few delays along the way; mainly in having enough licensed cultivators in the necessary regions of study. For example, the Tilburg and Breda locations only have a couple licensed cultivators to provide coffee shops with product.
Prior to the most recent announcement, the country didn’t want to start a pilot program without at least three cultivators ready to go. The Netherlands changed stance, and is now ready to allow the Tilburg and Breda locations to open; with two more cultivators expected to join in, in early 2024. The eight additional pilot programs will not open unless these two locations work out. Feelings are generally optimistic.
When it was first announced in February, Breda’s Mayor, Dr. Paul Depla stated, “With this start-up phase in Brabant we can gain first experiences, detect teething problems and gather the knowledge to perfect the experiment. In this way, we can make a flying start with the large-scale experiment.”
Apart from the designated areas like Tilburg and Breda, the country will also open at least one part of Amsterdam to legal sales as well. If you know anything about the Netherlands and weed, this move is necessary, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Overall, should authorities decide they are unhappy with this new program, it can be shut down.
Why a pilot program for legal cannabis sales is funny
Let’s be honest for a second, the Netherlands has enjoyed cannabis sales to the public for decades of time. In this changing world of cannabis reform, the Netherlands is no longer the sole focal point of the weed world, but it was for a really long time. Long enough that this policy is a bit laughable. Of all countries, there is none other that has as much accumulated knowledge of how to run a cannabis sales market. And yet here it is, acting like these first legal sales, are some kind of entrance into a new world.
To be clear, cannabis is not legal in the Netherlands; and it hasn’t been in the entire time the country has built up its industry. Cannabis has been illegal in the country since 1928’s passage of the Opium Act; although since 1972, a Policy of Tolerance has allowed the use of cannabis in coffee shops, without punishment to either vendors or buyers. Law enforcement can choose whether to make a big deal over a specific occurrence; but usually its all ignored unless children are involved.
Cannabis is decriminalized up to five grams for personal use, which includes the ability to cultivate up to five plants. Greater amounts than this can incur a fine up to €75, or prison time; depending on amount and purpose. When it comes to cultivation, law enforcement generally looks for those illegally growing for commercial purposes.
In terms of basic cannabis laws, the Netherlands isn’t that far off from other European countries; and a look at policy on the surface doesn’t indicate that this country functions differently than others. However, the Policy of Tolerance has spawned a huge market of coffee shops which provide cannabis sales, particularly in the capital of Amsterdam.
Netherlands Policy of Tolerance vs pilot program
A cannabis pilot program is meant to gain information on how to run a legal sales market. Logically, though, these markets are already open in different countries, which makes the idea of it as an experiment, a little late in the game. Perhaps simply looking at the positives and detractions of other markets is now more functionally useful. Or, in the case of the Netherlands, it really only has to gather data on its already existent coffee shop market.
While the pilot program step is a little unnecessary in places like Switzerland and Germany, its gravely unnecessary in the Netherlands. Like every other place, the Netherlands wants a taxable market; as the government currently has no control of the coffee shop system, or the illegal cultivation that supplies the shops. But in terms of how to do it, literally no country has more answers than the Netherlands. Even if you want to argue that it doesn’t have experience in legal production; it actually does! The Netherlands legalized medical cannabis, and a medical sales market, in 2003.
The current coffee shops have been running since the mid-1970’s. We’re literally in the 5th decade of information collection. And it’s not like the shops run completely lawlessly. IDs are checked. Maximum sales amounts are instituted. Alcohol and hard drugs are separated. Weapons are prohibited. Taxes are collected. This is a market operating in daylight, and it’s been going on for over half a century. There are sales statistics involved. The Netherlands ‘trying out cannabis sales’ is like Mexico ‘trying out taco sales.’
Regardless of the lack of logic, this is what the Netherlands is now planning. And realistically, its not all about logic; its also about finding a way to make a taxable market, within EU guidelines. Its quite possible that without the EU overseeing everything; that the Netherlands might have taken this step a long time ago. There is an incredibly silly aspect to it, sure, but there is also a reality that makes this silly concept, the only thing the Netherlands can do.
What to expect
In past years, the government spoke more about trying to end the weed tourism market in the country, but always to no avail. This new policy is more in line with the understanding of the inability to prohibit cannabis use; for both residents and tourists. In light of understanding a lack of control over the markets, many governments have changed tack and legalized the plant, in order to make it a taxable market they can benefit from.
But is there any way the government is going to change such a long-standing system in the Netherlands? Will it ruin what is already there, or make it less preferable for consumers? There are plenty of options in the world of weed tourism these days. Can the Netherlands market withstand tampering by the government?
I don’t know. It’s hard to imagine anything fundamentally changing the system now; but this doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If Amsterdam still stood as the main weed tourism location, government involvement might be less meaningful. But, governments tend to institute high taxes and regulatory fees, which raise prices. With more options available in the world, the Netherlands government might have stumbled on the one way to get rid of its gray cannabis sales market: make it legal!
Amsterdam reined supreme as the world’s weed capital for a long time; but things are changing. The new question now is how well the Netherlands can tolerate an actually legal sales market; complete with all standard government interference.
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