Solving the Dutch Cannabis Paradox, Its Legal to Buy, but Not to Grow

Acting on an anonymous tip about marijuana growers, Dutch police officers last month raided a basement laboratory in Best, a small village about 15 miles from the Belgian border. The officers found 539 plants in four growing rooms equipped with sophisticated equipment like a programmable irrigation system. The operation would bring in about $66,000 every 10 weeks, according to the police report.

While the news of a marijuana raid in the Netherlands may have been surprising to the throngs of tourists who visit the famous coffee shops in Amsterdam or Rotterdam, it is illegal to grow more than five cannabis plants for recreational use in what has long been seen as Europe’s marijuana capital. And the Dutch national police actively seek out and shut down hundreds of operations a year.

While licensed coffee shops have the right to sell small amounts of recreational cannabis and hash to buyers older than 18, they have to rely on the black market to acquire their wares in bulk.

“Right now, you are allowed to buy the milk, but you can’t know anything about the cow,” said Vera Bergkamp, a lawmaker with D66, a center-left party in the governing coalition that supports a bill that would test decriminalizing cannabis.

While the coffee shop business can be lucrative, owners say, current laws complicate their business and raise costs.

“It forces us to legal splits,” said Hendrik Brand, who has run the popular de Baron coffee shop in the southern city of Breda for decades. “One foot on the legal side and the other foot somewhere else.”

The government is taking steps to address the situation. It has proposed a pilot program to explore the effects of legalizing, standardizing and taxing the sort of professional-grade marijuana operation that was broken up in Best.

“To make the system logical again is to also tolerate the production of the cannabis,” said Paul Depla, the mayor of Breda and an outspoken proponent of legalization.

Supporters of the test hope decriminalization will help assure that users have access to safer marijuana. Mr. Brand said years of raids on small growers, whom he called “hippies,” has left him struggling for suppliers he knows and trusts.

“We do everything we can to protect the health of our customers,” he said, adding that before purchasing the cannabis for his shop, he puts samples under a microscope to see whether they are laced with anything impure or appear otherwise unhealthy.

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Last month, the national police union, Politie Bond, released a stinging report warning of the growth of organized crime in the country, fueled by the drug trade.

“The Netherlands fulfills many characteristics of a narco-state. Detectives see a parallel economy emerging,” the report stated, noting that while crime over all had decreased, those producing and trafficking drugs were becoming ever more sophisticated. “We have to be honest about the current situation, where organized crime has taken over marijuana growing situations,” said Arno Rutte, a lawmaker with the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, a liberal party currently in the four-party governing coalition.

The proposal, which is being shaped in committee and is scheduled for a vote in Parliament in the summer, would allow six to 10 Dutch cities to legally produce and sell cannabis for four years. Although only the rough outline of the proposal is known so far, the law would most likely license official growers, who will then be allowed to grow specific strains, similar to how medical marijuana is handled in the Netherlands.

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Whatever final shape the pilot project takes, it is likely to create a multimillion-dollar industry, and stakeholders — from corporate greenhouse suppliers to coffee shop owners — are vying for a say.

“We ask to be part of making the rules,” said Nicole Maalsté, an academic who helps represent nearly half the 567 Dutch coffee shops nationwide. “We want to be partners in this.”

The coffee shops are a fixture of neighborhood life in many Dutch cities. Close to the picturesque center of Breda, de Baron is typical — as far as the term can be used in an industry that prides itself on individuality. Clientele of various ages hang out, smoke joints or play cards, often for hours.

A shared fear among those connected to the current coffee shop scene is that a fully open and commercial system would squeeze out the smaller growers they have come to count on.

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