As Dutch Coffeeshops Decrease, Illicit Demand Persists in the Netherlands

By Bill Griffin, Contributing Writer for New Frontier Data

An adult arriving at Amsterdam Central Station could within minutes stroll into a nearby coffeeshop to purchase and consume some sparkling cannabis flowers to pair with their cappuccino. They would no doubt assume that recreational cannabis is fully legal in The Netherlands.

They would, however, be mistaken, though — as is often the case in matters of cannabis — the situation is complicated.

The Dutch have a reputation for tolerance, and it is unofficially permissible for anyone over the age of 18 to walk into a coffeeshop and purchase up to 5 grams of adult-use cannabis or hash (on which they pay no tax). Likewise, they would be allowed to consume such on the premises, or to take it home, so long as they did not consume it in public along the way.

Cannabis cultivation may be legal, provided one has a cultivation license. The catch is, only Bedrocan (the GMP-certified medicinal cannabis supplier to the Dutch Office of Medicinal Cannabis) holds an active license.

No cannabis sold in coffeeshops is grown by Bedrocan. Rather, it is either illegally cultivated domestically, or smuggled in from other countries. Cultivation without a license is strictly prohibited, with the Dutch police clamping down even on home growers; there are cases of people being arrested and evicted for just growing one plant, even for medicinal use.

“Imagine that milk is [accepted], but cows are strictly prohibited and hunted down by the police,” explains Derrick Bergman, chairman of the VOC (Union for the Abolition of Cannabis Prohibition), for reform advocates. “It’s ridiculous that in over 40 years of coffeeshops, our politicians never regulated the supply of these fine establishments. To this day, every gram of cannabis a coffeeshop sells has to be bought on the black market.”

It is permissible for a licensed coffeeshop to hold up to 500 grams (about 1.1 pound) of cannabis on the premises. If an owner is found to have more (during frequent spot checks), they risk losing their lucrative license.

Among busy coffeeshops, 500 grams may not last long, leaving purveyors in frequent need to restock. As an owner of a popular Amsterdam coffeeshop explained, “As far as the authorities are concerned, the cannabis appears at the back door as if by magic: ‘Oh, I need 500 grams of cannabis, poof, there it is on the back step. Isn’t that lucky!’”

Sorcery is not involved. Beyond the back door where everything is illegal, operations switch to a more traditional drug distribution setup. Runners fetch replacement stock from safe houses kept supplied by the illicit market.

Cannabis consumers are generally unaware of the potential risks which they are exposed to through the illicit market. As Bergman noted, “There are no quality checks, and there is no information on percentages of active compounds. After all this time, it’s still the Wild West. This obviously has to change: It makes no sense to regulate the front door of the coffeeshop (sales), but pretend the backdoor (supply chain) does not exist.”

Dutch authorities are well aware of the paradox, and recently agreed to investigate ways to resolve it, approving trials to test various regulated supply-chain models.

When coffeeshops were introduced in the early 1970s in an experimental harm-reduction programme, lawmakers never envisioned the scale of today’s operations. There have been concerted efforts to reduce the number of coffeeshops in the Netherlands. Nationwide today, there are some 500-plus coffeeshops, compared to a peak of around 1,500-2,000 in the mid ‘90s. “The number of coffeeshops had been going down for decades, whilst at the same time the population has grown and demand is roughly the same,” Bergman noted. “This makes no sense, and has led to busier and bigger coffeeshops with higher turnovers — exactly what our government says it wants to avoid.”

In smaller towns without coffeeshops, dealers are happy to fill the void. According to Bergman, a solution would be to loosen restrictions on coffeeshops, and exploring other distribution methods. “The VOC advocates for more coffeeshops, but also for cannabis social clubs, which are now forbidden. Especially for smaller towns that typically have no coffeeshop, these private clubs would be a great solution as dealers are making good money in these towns.”

Barring adoption of a Dutch program to regulate cultivation for its adult-use market, the most logical assumption for visitors to make is that a lucrative illicit market will remain well in demand.