European countries seeking to legalize cannabis possession and consumption have faced numerous stumbling blocks. Most recently, Germany had to water down their cannabis legalization efforts after mounting pressure from the European Union. However, that isn’t stopping other countries from exploring new paths toward legalization. One such country is the Netherlands, which has tolerated cannabis “coffee shops.” These coffee houses are permitted to sell cannabis only under strict conditions. Yet, how they access the cannabis they sell has been problematic.
Under a new pilot program, the Netherlands seeks to remove coffee shops’ hurdles and provide a safe, legal, and consistent supply of cannabis to storefronts in select cities. The goal is to sever the link between legitimately operated coffee shops and illegal cannabis producers, giving cannabis consumers in the Netherlands sources of safe and reliable cannabis products.
What Are Cannabis Coffee Shops?
Cannabis coffee shops date back to at least the 1970s in the Netherlands. Most of Europe and the world leaned hard into anti-drug policies, vilifying drugs and enacting harsh penalties for those caught possessing or consuming illegal substances. However, the Netherlands took a unique approach to the war on drugs, instead decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. While it remains against the law to possess, sell, or produce drugs, the Netherlands deemed cannabis a soft drug, less likely to cause damage to people’s health and safety than hard drugs.
“Coffee shops” soon emerged as places where consumers could purchase cannabis. Although marijuana possession and use is not technically legal, the Public Prosecution Service does not prosecute members of the public for consuming or possessing small amounts of marijuana. Nor does the agency go after these so-called coffee shops for selling cannabis if the shops follow stringent guidelines like not selling hard drugs, not selling cannabis to minors, and not selling large quantities of cannabis in a single transaction. These coffee shops must not be a nuisance in their area or advertise drugs in any way. Additionally, cannabis coffee shops cannot serve alcohol.
Over time, cannabis coffee shops became iconic pillars of the cannabis-loving community. Most offered relaxed environments where cannabis consumers could purchase and enjoy cannabis while eating or drinking with friends. Although wildly popular with tourists and many locals, these shops have come under fire. Some say they are a dangerous nuisance and invite crime and the degradation of their communities.
What’s Changing in the Netherlands?
Unfortunately, the problem with cannabis coffee shops is how they source their products. Although these shops can sell cannabis to the public, they cannot legally buy their cannabis supplies in the country. How do they get the products they provide to consumers? The answer is generally through illegal means like illegal suppliers and gangland drug producers who also control the sale and trade of harder drugs and cannabis. The flexible laws in the Netherlands have created a sort of no man’s land where buying and consuming small amounts of cannabis may be okay, but legally gaining access to a safe and consistent supply of cannabis to sell is illegal.
Now, a new pilot program seeks to change all that. The cities of Tilburg and Breda are the first on the list to experiment with the program. Under the terms of the new program, coffee shops can have their cannabis supplied from three official cannabis sources. Two suppliers are ready to offer products immediately, while the third supplier should be up and running shortly. During the first few weeks of operation, coffee shops can continue to purchase cannabis from their black-market dealers. They can slowly begin phasing out their old cannabis products in favor of new ones supplied by legitimate cannabis producers and suppliers.
The hope is that the new cannabis pilot programs help curtail drug traders and sever the link between legitimate commercial businesses and illegal drug trafficking operations. The experimental program will last four years. In that time, at least ten Dutch cities will eventually be involved. Tilburg and Breda are the first, but soon other cities will follow, like Amsterdam-Oost, Arnhem, Maastricht, Nijmegen, Zaanstad, Heerlen, Groningen, Almere, and Hellevoesluis.
In those four years, the government will examine the new supply chain’s impact on public health, cannabis-related crime statistics, and public safety. The government and parliament can then decide what additional steps can be taken towards legalizing cannabis.
Push Back Coming from Several Directions
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the changes to the Netherland’s cannabis policy. Many in the Christian Democrats and the Christian Union are opposed to the new program, saying they are fundamentally against the legalization of cannabis and the potential expansion of cannabis cafes in the country. The pilot program has been a point of contention in the run-up to the country’s November election as groups attempt to replace outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte with a more conservative pick. Some have tried to put the cannabis project on hold until a new government reviews how “soft drugs” are managed in the Netherlands.
These groups still criticize the government for never quashing coffee shops when they first emerged in the 1970s, saying it is too late to reform the cannabis business model when criminality has been in place for decades. Some cannabis sellers are also questioning the pilot program, saying their current cannabis supplies, although illegal, come from regions of Morocco, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. Some believe these products are superior to the products that legal cannabis producers and suppliers will provide. Some coffee shop owners worry the change in product quality may put customers off purchasing cannabis at legal coffee shops, hurting their bottom line.
However, many in the country hope the program will finally offer safe, reliable, and legal products to consumers. Many are also optimistic that the data gathered during the four-year weed experiment will shape new cannabis policies in the country and potentially across Europe.