Cannabis in holland: legal but still a bit illegal

Drug policy You can smoke pot in Holland, but coffee shops can’t buy weed

  • Anna-Sophie Barbutev, Viviene-Jana Gaida

This article was published on 08. August 2018 by Orange – the young portal of the Handelsblatt – and was published on 28.10.2020 Updated.

Federico Tucci runs his business in constant fear. "From one day to the next, our store could be closed," says the 33-year-old. He is the manager of Bagheera Coffeeshop, one of a total of 173 stoner parlors in Amsterdam. They sell cannabis in all kinds of varieties – but half of their business is illegal.

Cannabis in Holland: consumption is legal, cultivation and purchase are prohibited

That’s because of the contradictory drug laws in the Netherlands. Although the consumption of cannabis from the age of 18 is allowed since 1976. Possession of up to five grams per person is also legal. The authorities also tolerate the sale in coffee shops. But cultivation and purchase of cannabis in large quantities are prohibited.

Dealers like Federico are working in a gray area with this. "Anyone who runs a coffee shop is walking on thin ice legally. There is no state-controlled cannabis cultivation," he says as he rolls a joint. This means: "We depend on dealers." The law forces him and the other operators to do something forbidden, he says.

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His store is located in the central neighborhood of Nieuwmarkt. With the exception of one table, all seats of the outdoor area are occupied on this sunny Saturday afternoon. Sweet smell in the air. Guests smoke overlooking the Kloveniersburgwal, one of Amsterdam’s oldest canals. Above the counter hangs the "menu" with varieties such as 24K Gold Kush, Rolex OG or Bagheera Special Haze.

Cannabis in Holland: Coffeeshops buy from illegal dealers

The product comes from an illegal network of suppliers that has been built up over the years. Federico has to check each delivery individually. There is no government control and no legal standard he can appeal to. "If someone sells conventional tomatoes as organic, he can be sued and punished. But how can I protect myself from fraud when buying cannabis is illegal??", complains Federico.

Offering good cannabis is not easy. Even alleged lab test results could be fake. So he has only one way to check the quality: "You have to look at it closely and smoke it." Frederico has been smoking pot since he was 17. The years of experience help him in his business. And it even seems to work. In 2017, a strain from his store won an award at the Amsterdam Cannabis Cup.

At the same time, the Italian would like nothing more than clear rules – as in some states in the U.S. "I wish I could offer the same service as in the United States. There, sellers can grow cannabis themselves and thus control the quality."

Netherlands: state cannabis in test cities from 2021

The wish could come true, but for this the trader still needs patience. The Dutch government will begin a test phase in ten cities starting in 2021. Over four years, the experiment takes place in the cities of Arnhem, Almere, Breda, Groningen, Heerlen, Hellevoetluis, Maastricht, Nijmegen, Tilburg and Zaanstad. Only marijuana from government-approved farmers is sold in the 79 local coffee shops. Cannabis is industrially produced and packaged in the facilities. This testing phase is intended to break up illegal businesses and minimize health risks for users.

Since Amsterdam is not one of the ten selected cities, consumption there remains in the gray zone. Frederico must continue to fear daily that the authorities will close his store. "If they want it, they’ll find a way," he says. The introduction of the "Wiet-Pas" in 2012 shows how uncertain the status of Dutch coffeeshops is, he says.

With this, the government wanted to turn all coffeeshops into closed clubs in order to curb drug tourism. Only registered members registered in the Netherlands should be allowed to smoke pot legally from now on. After protests, the "Wiet-Pas" introduced in provinces near the border was abolished again. Since then, cities and municipalities decide for themselves whether to allow coffee shops to sell cannabis to foreigners.

Maastricht, for example, has banned it. The Hague even became the first Dutch city to partially ban cannabis after citizens complained about stoners. Since the beginning of May, consumption in the city center is subject to a fine. Amsterdam, on the other hand, continues to be considered "the heart of liberal drug policy," as Federico Tucci calls it. The downtown coffee shop operator hopes that it will at least stay that way.

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