Where Does Amsterdam's Marijuana Come From?

The Netherlands' netherworld of tolerated-but-still-illegal marijuana has its homegrown critics who argue for outright prohibition or outright legalization.
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The Netherlands' netherworld of tolerated-but-still-illegal marijuana has its homegrown critics who argue for outright prohibition or outright legalization.

Gerd Leers, a conservative Dutch mayor from Maastricht and a respectable member of the Netherlands' Christian Democrats, appeared in a punk video several years ago for a song called "Dope Man."

It's a protest song aimed at the Netherlands' liberal drug policy. The Heideroosjes are not some sort of weird Christian band; its song mocks what a lot of Dutch people see as an inconsistent, two-faced attitude toward pot. And it makes an important point.

"A coffee shop can sell weed / But where it comes from, don't ask how," sing the Heideroosjes. "It's yours to smoke / But you can't grow ... I find that strange."

Large-scale marijuana wholesaling is illegal in the Netherlands. That begs the question of who, exactly, provides weed for all those coffee shops in Amsterdam. It is not — surprise, surprise — ordinary farmers in the Dutch countryside.

"My name is Gerd Leers, mayor of Maastricht," the politician raps in the middle of the Heideroosjes' video, laying out his ideas to a fictional city council. "Illegal growers are out of control ... But I say we can make laws to regulate."

EUROPEAN DISPATCHMichael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

EUROPEAN DISPATCH
Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

Leers is a renegade Christian Democrat, so he's quick to tell journalists that he doesn't want kids to take drugs (or drink alcohol). And if pot legalization can't work, he says, he'll revert to the Christian Democrat party line — a call for re-prohibition of all (unconventional) drugs in the Netherlands.

His point — as the Heideroosjes sing — is that "half tolerance doesn't work."

Dutch drug policy is the result of tweaks and half-measures introduced over 25 years, ever since the government decided to quit prosecuting soft-drug offenses and introduce a policy of "harm reduction" in 1976. The Netherlands has not legalized drugs; it just tolerates their existence on the street. One major problem with the policy is that drug gangs still rule the shadowy wholesale market.

By law, a café can grow a small amount of weed for sale to retail customers; but many owners, in practice, take delivery of large amounts from weed cartels and sell it on to foreign customers. "The policy of allowing shops to sell their supplies via the front door but not buy via the back door has created a gray area that is, by definition, good for doing business," said Max Daniel, chief of the Netherlands' organized crime unit, to NRC Handelsblad in 2008. "There are mega coffee shops that sell between 10 and 12 kilos (22-26.5 pounds) a day and hardly have any Dutch customers."

Cannabis trafficking, he said, is involved in "nearly all major cases involving murder, weapons and drugs" in the Netherlands, and the reason the cartels became so powerful was the government's schizophrenic tolerance. "Everyone, including the police, said: 'It's only cannabis,'" he explained. "In our society, we have been brought up to believe that cannabis is not something criminal."

So the debate in the Netherlands has been pushed in two directions: Either shutter the coffee shops and re-criminalize everything, or follow through on the general Dutch belief that cannabis isn't criminal, and legitimize the whole operation.

Leers favors full legalization. The open and legal aspects of Dutch coffee-shop operations, he says in a video interview from 2009, have been extremely well regulated, rather like the sale of alcohol, which is "also harmful," he says. "Drug use is harmful!" But then, so is the war on drugs. "If I let it go in the illegal sector," he says, "the problems are bigger and greater than [if we] control it ... So control it, license it, as we did with alcohol."

The probable result would be less crime, and more sanity, in the Netherlands, but also a booming semi-legal trade in Dutch weed bound for neighboring European nations, like Germany or the United Kingdom, with stricter pot laws. "We have estimated that at least 80 percent of what is grown in the Netherlands [now] is exported," Max Daniel said in another interview with Handelsblad. "In the Netherlands there are 400,000 users of the drug and of hashish. If it was only them, the problem would be entirely manageable."

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