The Netherlands is ready to regulate cannabis

The only obstacle is the current minister of Justice
Thursday, December 19, 2013

opstelten-doofBarely a week after an opinion poll showed that 65% of the Dutch are in favour of regulating cannabis production just as in Uruguay, the minister of Justice and Security of The Netherlands, Ivo Opstelten, told parliament that he will not allow regulated cannabis cultivation to supply the coffeeshops in the country. Two in three large municipal councils back regulated cannabis cultivation, but the minister will probably not allow a single one of the 25 proposals to experiment with regulated cultivation that have been submitted.

The government's priority remains cracking down on organised growing and keeping tourists out of coffeeshops where small amounts of cannabis can be sold. According to the minister the current UN drug conventions do not allow for cultivation of cannabis for recreational use. But if they would, Opstelten has made in abundantly clear he still would not allow it. "It is not allowed, and even if it is allowed I don’t want it," he was quoted.

The other main argument of the minister is that 80% of the cannabis cultivated in The Netherlands is destined for export and controlled by criminal organizations. That figure is based on an arbitrary and erroneous interpretation by the Taskforce Tackling Organized Hempgrowing, a special unit of the police and prosecution office, of a police study that has been kept secret for a long time, but which was revealed in March 2012 by KRO Reporter International.

The conclusion of the police study was diametrically opposed to the allegations of the Taskforce. The export figure of 80 percent was considered implausible: "given the relatively small amounts of cannabis intercepted in neighboring countries, this outcome [80% destined for export] is not very likely." The study concluded therefore that the export of illegally grown Dutch cannabis is "modest."

Nevertheless, the erroneous 80% myth has dominated the debate in The Netherlands since the Taskforce deliberately started a campaign on the basis of this whipped up figure. At the time the secret study was revealed TNI’s Martin Jelsma already concluded that the 80% myth had been used to roll back liberal Dutch cannabis policies and strengthen a reppressive approach.

Mayors of the towns that do want to regulate cannabis cultivation have announced that they will not simply accept the minister’s njet. In January 2014, the municipalities of Eindhoven, Utrecht and Heerlen plan to organize a congress with other municipalities that want to regulate and prepare a manifesto that calls for regulation. Opposition party D66 has called for a parliamentary debate and has said to draft a law proposal to allow for regulated cannabis cultivation.

The 80% myth revisited

In his letter to parliament, Opstelten keeps on insisting that 80% of Dutch produced cannabis is exported, despite serious doubts about the substantiation of the figures. To back up his claim, he refers to an analysis by the Dutch police on organised cannabis cultivation. The analysis now even claims that 85% of Dutch grown cannabis is exported, despite the fact that it also says that the real annual cultivation of cannabis in The Netherlands is "unknown." The analysis clearly suffers from a lack of substantial data and the political need to produce a figure to back up a crackdown on cannabis cultivation. "Calculating" the production of cannabis in The Netherlands, the analysis arrives at a range between 187 tot 1,196 tons of cannabis. In statistical jargon such "guesstimates" translates to 'we don’t have a clue'.

"It is difficult to determine how plausible the estimates are" the police report admits, as there are too many uncertainties in the calculations on both production and consumption side. However, the report says, some other indicators might shed some light on the plausibility of the estimate, such as documented police investigation of shipments, seizures at home and abroad, and the magnitude of production in potential export destination countries. The report then describes that in 2010 the biggest seizure of an export shipment was 315 kg in the Rotterdam harbour. The UK, assumed to be the largest export market, seized in total 6 tons in 2010 and 4 tons in 2011 'assumed' to originate in The Netherlands. Regarding the other indicator, the report mentions that both in the UK, Germany and in Belgium local production has rapidly increased these past years. No conclusion, however, is subsequently drawn about the light these indicators indeed shed on the plausibility of the 85% estimated export (383 tons per year). But maybe they considered it not necessary to spell that out, it speaks for itself?

Looking at information from neighbouring countries the picture becomes even more complex. Clandestine cannabis cultivation is booming in the United Kingdom. "Intelligence indicates that UK organised crime gangs may supply drugs to the continent to fill a gap in the market but there is no evidence of widespread export," according to the 2012 UK National Problem Profile for the Commercial Cultivation of Cannabis by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo). Although the UK has not become a net exporter (yet?), the claim in the Dutch police report, that the UK is the most important importer of Dutch cannabis, is contradictory to UK figures that seem to indicate that the country is largely self suficient. The Dutch crackdown on cannabis cultivation the past years is also driving the business eastward to Germany. Since 2004, there has been an increase in cannabis cultivation, in particular in the North Rhine-Westphalia region bordering The Netherlands. Plantations run by Dutch groups are moving their operations further east into Germany, to avoid detection by Dutch authorities in the border region.

According to the Belgian federal police, the increasing seizure trend for cannabis plantations, observed in the previous years, continued in 2011, with a record number of 1,070 cannabis plantations seized in 2011. Most of the production is destined for export to The Netherlands, where the cannabis is sold in coffeeshops. That raises the obvious question: why should a country where allegedly 80% of its cannabis is exported, rely on import it for distribution in their coffeeshops? Part of the answer is that Dutch criminal organisations are often involved in growing operations in Belgium and Germany, and that the crackdown in The Netherlands has had a "balloon effect" moving the production to neighbouring countries, as the 2012 study Cannabis production and markets in Europe by the EMCDDA already observed, without significantly reducing the production of cannabis in Western Europe. The dynamics of the cannabis market are more complex than Opstelten is pretending in his letter to the parliament, and a new study looking at the European market will most likely give very different results.

No doubt part of Dutch grown cannabis finds its way across the border, but looking at increasing domestic cultivation in all neighbouring countries, the best guess is that is has been most likely decreasing over the past decade. The 80% figure has been a politically constructed myth going around for a long time now without any credible scientific backing; to keep repeating such questionable figures now and still draw policy conclusions from them today, turns myths into "lies, damned lies and statistics."

Tourist ban

Opstelten wants to continue to ban tourist from buying cannabis in coffeeshops requiring Dutch visitors to carry a residence permit. Despite the obvious resistance among most local municipal councils and a 60% opposition in the polls, Opstelten keeps on insisting that the policy has to be applied nationwide.

He proudly writes that 90% of the municipalities have introduced or will introduce the measure in their local police ordinance, while he fully well knows that most municipalities will not enforce the rule. Amsterdam – where one-third of the around 650 coffeeshops in The Netherlands are located – has flatly said they will not introduce the rule.

In a recent survey among Dutch magistrates – both judges and prosecutors – 63.9% said they did not consider the residence criterion an effective measure to suppress public disorder around coffeeshops. While 51.2% was convinced it would be counterproductive and result in increased street dealing, 11.9% thought it was outright discrimination. Significantly, among the prosecutors the scepticism about the measure was even higher than among the judges: 59.8% was convinced that it would increase street dealing.


See also: Cannabis policy in the Netherlands: Moving forwards not backwards, Transform Policy Brief, March 2014