Dutch courage! Coffee shops cutting off illegal supplies

The Netherlands has been a trailblazer in terms of cannabis legalisation over the past few decades, it was first introduced in the 1970s for the purpose of attempting to keep hard and soft drugs separated.

Although considered by some to be a more unsophisticated part of the many leisurely activities found within the Netherlands, the sale of cannabis products served in small quantities is legal within licensed coffee shops across the country under the country’s drug policy.

The government recognise the inevitability of people continuing to use substances, therefore allowing the sale and use of a small amount of drugs considered soft or having a low risk of harm and addiction. This means the authorities can focus their attention on big criminals profiting and supplying hard drugs.

Drug tourism’ or travelling for the purpose to use drugs recreationally, means that the Netherlands hosts a huge number of tourists, bringing millions of euros into the Dutch economy each year exclusively due to the coffee shop culture.

Nonetheless, there are still several issues to do with the cultivation, distribution and the supply chain of cannabis.

Murky underworld

Currently, although it’s legal for coffee shops to sell cannabis, it is still completely illegal to produce and supply the plant. This means there is still the murky criminal underworld profiting off the back of cannabis tourism.

The Dutch government has plans to tackle the illegal drugs black market by producing its own and supplying coffee shops with regulated cannabis.

It only takes a quick look at reviews online to see the plethora of negative comments about the standard of cannabis in Amsterdam coffee shops. Many reviews claim that the weed being sold is ‘sprayed’ and ‘full of contaminants’, which can be potentially harmful to users.  

Now, cannabis cafes in 10 cities will get a legal supply of cannabis as a part of a four-year experiment starting in 2021. The stipulation being all shops within the particular cities must immediately abandon their illegal suppliers.

Interestingly, The Hague, Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam will not take part in the scheme as their business still heavily depends on the illegal production line, but the experiment could tempt the major cities away from the criminal world if it goes well.

Amsterdam in particular houses almost 170 cannabis-based coffee shops, with the city mayor warning of the dangers if all 170 buyers suddenly abandoned their illegal supplies immediately, and the chairman of the VOC group promoting cannabis – Derrick Bergman –stating the trial is “way too little, way too late”.

While the Dutch recreational cannabis industry is expected to be worth a billion euros by 2028, some citizens fear that enabling domestic growers to cultivate their own supply of plants will lead the country into ‘narco state’ standing, where the country depends on the illicit drugs trade.

Dope Man

Released in 2006, the then conservative mayor of Maastricht Gerd Leers featured in an angsty punk song called ‘Dope Man’ – a protest track taking aim at the country’s liberal drug policy and the contradiction of tolerated cannabis use but prohibited cultivation.

Leers raps “My name is Gerd Leers, mayor of Maastricht, less kids on pot, I feel this is my duty, they buy 8000 kg a year here, because more than a million tourists really come for this, we don’t have control over illegal growers, banning it doesn’t help, there is no law against plants”.

His last verse raps about control of the plant and how they can “set rules for the strength of the stuff, clear policy, that’s what you can work with, just put the rule to the test and we’ll see”, alongside the band’s prominent statement of “smoking weed is forbidden but we allow it, a coffee shop may sell weed, but where does it come from… don’t ask how!”

Speaking to NRC Handelsblad in 2008, Max Daniel, the head of the Netherlands organised crime unit expressed his worries on “the policy of allowing shops to sell their supplies via the front door but not buy via the back door has created a grey area that is, by definition, good for doing business”.

He states that while some of the cannabis sold within coffee shops is imported, illegal production continues in secret within the Netherlands as demand from foreign countries for the infamous Dutch cannabis can net the sellers “three or four times the Dutch price”.

After illegal growers get busted, the supply chain slowly dwindles resulting in the prices of cannabis rising and sellers finding dodgy ways to make back the financial losses they experience because of this process.

Iron filings

In order to cash in on the hefty demand for Dutch cannabis, greedy suppliers have been found to add toxic fillers to bulk out their weed shipment, adding iron filings or sand to increase the weights, a process only detected previously within cocaine and heroin shipments.

Civil rights activist for weed users and well known organic cannabis grower, Doede de Jong claimed during an interview that a coffee shop owner who purchased cannabis from an illegal weed producer found the cannabis to be soaked in liquid lead. This process enables the cannabis cultivators to turn 30 kilos of plant into 50 kilos, thus increasing their monetary yield.

The lack of regulation has also seen the average price of the cannabis increase in recent years while the quality of the flower has deteriorated, which could potentially lead users to increased risk of health issues.

The overall extent of the financial criminal impact on the Netherlands cannabis market is hard to gauge, however the last reported earnings of criminal drugs organisations involved in the supplying aspects alone is suspected to net between 21 to 42 million euros in untaxed annual profit.

Overall, this hazy predicament leaves the Dutch government with few options, completely get rid of all coffee shops that have become an icon of the liberal stance the Netherlands holds on soft drugs, or bring into place official regulation for the cultivation and supply of cannabis, enabling the country to benefit from the profitable nature of the industry and bring back the quality of the plant sold within its businesses.