After many setbacks, the Netherlands has finally launched its ‘cannabis experiment’, initiating the process of a legal cannabis market. Let’s take a look at what this program aims to achieve, how this has been received by the drug reform community, and what questions this program will answer regarding the future of cannabis legalisation in Europe.
As of the 15th of December 2023, coffee shops in Breda and Tilburg will have a six month window to supply both legal and illegal cannabis until the demand can be satisfied by legally produced cannabis. Once this window has expired, illegal sources will be phased out in favour of three government designated suppliers who grow high quality, transparently produced cannabis sold in plain packaging to customers.
While the pilot originates in Breda and Tilburg, the program aims to expand in scope over its four year implementation, ultimately aiming for 10 distributors to supply legal cannabis to 11 municipalities including Amsterdam-Oost- a borough of the Dutch capital.
When speaking to NOS, Ed Pattché (owner of Paradijs coffee shop) stated that the regulated cannabis is of good quality, free of pesticides, and has predicted that the product will be slightly cheaper than illegally sourced cannabis in the long term. This is significant as legally produced cannabis often struggles to compete with illicit market prices. Currently, coffee shop owners are limited to only storing 500 grams, a number which some owners are concerned will not satisfy the demand of their customers.
The Dutch Minister of Health Ernst Kuipers hopes that the pilot will demonstrate that cannabis legalisation can serve a public good- allowing impartial health advice to be distributed on the potential harms of cannabis use while providing a safe alternative to illegal cannabis markets simultaneously.
Kuipers believes that this program will ultimately cut down on the increasing rates of cannabis use in the Netherlands and instead allow for regulated and informed use. He also indicated that future programs focusing on the legalisation of cocaine or ecstasy are not expected to be approved.
Feedback from the drug reform community on this landmark pilot appears to be mostly positive, with many excited about how this program will shape the future of drug policy in a European context. Some have indicated that they are happy cannabis is now coming from regulated sources which can contribute taxes to their economy.
Furthermore, there are hopes that this pilot will cut down on the impact of petty crime and anti-social behaviour which the previous black market facilitated as part of the distribution process.
The use of QR codes has been praised as an excellent way to ensure that users have the best access to information about the product that they are using, and are not at harm from mould or pesticide contamination. This system allows customers to verify information from the distributor about information such as THC and CBD content, batch number, and testing information to verify that the cannabis is safe and traceable.
However, some have raised concerns about the plastic packaging being used in quantities as small as one gram, noting that such packaging will have an unnecessarily large environmental cost.
Another concern with this program has been the potential for political interference by the PVV (Party for Freedom) who won the 2023 general elections and have been open about wanting a ‘drug free’ Netherlands. Despite this, Ernst Kuipers assured the public that this pilot had already been approved in legislation and could not be interfered with by the current political climate. However, the long term implications this will have on nationwide legalisation in the Netherlands is yet to be seen.
The Netherlands are well situated to learn from the lessons and mistakes which have come from previous cannabis legalisation frameworks in the US and Canada. An important aspect of the success of this pilot could be determined by the price of the regulated cannabis, and whether these prices can compete with the adjustments which will follow from the illegal markets.
It will be interesting to find out how this new form of distribution affects cannabis use in the areas this pilot targets, and whether this program can aid in reducing the use of risky cannabis use which has been observed.
This pilot could represent a key landmark on the road to cannabis legalisation in Europe. Consequently, there are a number of questions to be answered by this pilot which could move the needle against scepticism towards cannabis legalisation.
As this pilot progresses over the next four years, the success or failure of this program could have long lasting input on how the European Commission and countries with similar drug policy rationale such as Spain and Portugal approach the issue of cannabis legalisation going forward.
While there are some concerns which have been raised from this pilot such as unrealistic supply capacity and environmental sustainability, the information obtained from this program could prove invaluable in understanding what the future of cannabis legalisation in Europe could look like.
This piece was written by Oliver Callaghan, Intern at Volteface. X @Oliver1331556