The politics of weed

It is a common misconception that hashish and weed are legal in the Netherlands. They’re not. However, they are tolerated; that is, if a coffeeshop obeys certain strict regulations, it is allowed to sell hashish or weed to the general public, including tourists. This policy was set by justice minister (1973-1977) and prime minister (1977-1981) Van Agt (CDA), and has been in place ever since.

The coffeeshops

The most notable regulations are that coffeeshops may only sell hashish and weed; not any stronger drugs. According to law and custom hashish and weed are soft drugs, while all other drugs are hard drugs, which may not be sold anywhere. Since 2007 coffeeshops are also banned from serving alcohol, but even before that happend only in a minority of coffeeshops, primarily those catering to tourists — who are generally not used to getting drunk and stoned at the same time.

A coffeeshop may have a maximum amount of 500 grams of soft drugs in store at any one time. In practice this is far too little for even a day of sales, especially when you’re selling to tourists, so most coffeeshops have a storage somewhere from where they can transport batches of 500 grams to the actual shop at short notice. This is generally tolerated as well.

While buying some hashish in a coffeeshop and carrying it around for personal use is perfectly safe (though not legal), supplying the coffeeshops is a much more murky area. In practice everybody knows they’re being supplied by drug smugglers, and although police will occasionally seize wholesale batches of soft drugs in the ports, the fact that the tolerated coffeeshops need a supply chain is obvious, and cracking down on soft drug smuggling was never a law enforcement priority.

Still, having half of a supply chain not-legal-but-tolerated and the other half illegal is an undesirable situation. Mayors of coffeeshop-heavy cities and towns (Amsterdam and the other large cities, but also smaller towns close to the Belgian and German borders) have been clamouring for some sort of regulated weed cultivation for ages now. The southern province of Noord-Brabant has had problems with soft drug running and cultivating (not only soft drugs, but also much nastier hard drugs).

Meanwhile we were overtaken left and right by other countries — even some US states now have legal weed, where when I was young it was the Little Satan of drug hysterics — while we’re struggling with an outdated system that’s insufficient for the new situation.

The politics of toleration

In political terms the divide runs over the ethical fault lines. The christian parties CDA, CU, and SGP are generally opposed to the toleration policy, as is the PVV. The VVD is unsure. The left-wing parties generally favour some sort of supply chain mechanism — though there are considerable differences between the parties. D66 is the most vocal proponent of fully legal soft drugs.

Also, too, legal soft drugs can be taxed. I read an estimate of 850 million euros per year — not inconsiderable. (Curently coffeeshops are also taxed, but they have to file their soft drug transactions as “miscellaneous profits.” Don’t ask me how they file their smuggling expenses.)

Since the VVD breaks ties, and since the liberals are divided among themselves about the issue and have defaulted to maintaining the current situation, neither the proponents of increased toleration nor those of abolition have been able to make much headway.

Back in 2012 the abolitionists were poised for a victory, when parliament decided all coffeeshops would become member-only clubs. This was mostly aimed at the border towns, where semi-professional drug runners from Belgium, Germany, and especially France bought fair amounts of soft drugs and generally behaved badly. The new law was aimed at excluding them.

The city of Amsterdam has a quite different type of drug tourists: people who buy for personal use only, and generally don’t give a lot of problems. (Well, OK, every year there’s a drug-crazed tourist who thinks he can fly and jumps out of a hotel window, but these people generally have severe psychological problems before coming here. And they have more than just a joint.) Therefore the mayor decided to ignore the new law. When the courts found that border country coffeeshops didn’t have to comply, either (I forget why) the whole exercise was abandoned.

The legalisers don’t make much headway, either. Recently the umpteenth attempt to regulate (and thus legalise) weed cultivation was voted down in parliament and criticised by the Council of State (believe me, that’s Very Bad).

A new law

That’s why I was surprised when I read that a new law has a decent chance of passing. This law doesn’t legalise and regulate weed cultivation. Instead it aims to tolerate it. Details aren’t fully clear yet, but the idea seems to be that a mayor may demand from a coffeeshop to buy its products only from a tolerated weed farmer who are subjects to the regulations of the Food Authority. Also, the 500 gram maximum will disappear.

I see one big advantage of tolerating over legalising. Formally, cultivating weed remains a punishable offence, and that might deter large companies from going into the cultivation business. Small business owners will doubtless take up the slack — I’m especially thinking of the vast greenhouse complexes in the Westland area that now mostly grow vegetables for the European market. And I’d rather have a weed market dominated by many small producers than by two or three large ones.

Politically, the new law is enabled by the VVD shifting its stance. The VVD had a big stake in the law-and-order Ministry of Security and Justice, but now that the second minister in as many years has resigned over the same affair it’s clear that this “super-ministry” is very badly managed and will probably not survive the coming coalition negotiations. The ministers themselves and their senior staff were abolitionists; now the time seems ripe for a careful compromise between abolitionists and legalisers, in the time-honoured Dutch fashion.

All this will have no effect on the elections. The weed issue is not a hot-button issue in any way, because it’s hard to make electoral gains either way. The party positions have been known for most of my lifetime, and they’re not about to change.

Update: The law passed, with among others the left-wing parties, 50Plus and PvdD in favour, 77-72. The two VNL MPs, PVV-split-offs who likely won't return after the elections, also supported it. That still doesn't get us to 77, so I assume DENK (2), member Monasch (ex-PvdA), and one or two others also voted in favour. It still has to pass the Senate, though, where the proponents do not have a majority. Expect this to become a minor agenda point if D66 and at least one other left-wing party are invited to coalition discussions.

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This is the political blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer, in Amsterdam. It’s a hobby blog where he follows Dutch politics for the benefit of those twelve foreigners that are interested in such matters, as well as his Dutch readers.

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