Dutch councils vie to produce cannabis in bid to cut out criminals

Netherlands trial is designed to stop gangs from supplying cannabis-selling coffee shops

At least 30 companies want to get into the legal mass production of cannabis in the Netherlands, according to the mayor of the southern city of Breda, whose council is among two dozen vying to take part in government-backed trials designed to cut criminals out of supplying cannabis-selling coffee shops.

Dutch coffee shops are allowed to sell small amounts of the drug to over-18s, yet production is illegal, leaving an opportunity for gangs also involved in harder drugs to prosper.

The police dismantled 5,856 marijuana plantations in 2015, nearly 16 a day, according to the latest available figures.

The new Dutch government led by Mark Rutte has, however, sanctioned a series of trials in 2018 to be conducted by six to 10 councils which will regulate production in their areas and report to the outcome to central governmen.

Four models are being proposed. One would lead to mass production from companies or medical institutions, which would supply the coffee shops.

A second concept, proposed by the mayor of Rotterdam, would eliminate the need for coffee shops by allowing licensed producers to directly supply customers ordering online.

A further suggestion is that the production would be done by individuals enrolled in a social cannabis club. Finally, it is suggested the coffee shops could be responsible for producing everything they sell.

Paul Depla, the mayor of Breda, near the Belgian border in the south-westof the Netherlands, proposes a joint model with fellow frontier authorities Eindhoven and Limburg to license a small number of companies to mass produce the cannabis, which would be sold in the coffee shops.

Depla told the Guardian: “A lot of companies have tried to contact and have said they are capable of producing the cannabis to be sold in the coffee shop. I have had offers from 25, 30, companies telling me that they are capable to produce on a legal and safe basis the cannabis.

“Some involved in agriculture or linked with big companies with a lot of spare heat. Producing cannabis costs you a lot in electricity.”

Asked for the names of the firms, Depla said they were being careful not to come forward until the government had formally launched the trials because of the danger of a public relations misstep.

“They want to be in the market, but it has to be sure that the government will allow this,” he said. “When the government says they are starting, they will come forward. For the shareholders they don’t want the publicity for them it is very difficult.”

Breda has eight coffee shops frequented by 8% of the city’s adult population, equating to about 2,000 customers every week.

Depla said the current system was “bankrupt”. “This is all about the problem of the back door of the coffee shops,” he said. “Production now is dominated by organised crime syndicates. We have got a bankrupt system.

Smokey coffee shop in Rembrandtplein, Amsterdam, where marijuana consumption is legal.
Smokey coffee shop in Rembrandtplein, Amsterdam, where marijuana consumption is legal. Photograph: Paul Brown/Rex/Shutterstock

“In the front door, it is working well. Back door, all sorts of problems because it is encouraging criminality and the small production in fields in houses and there are fires because of electricity problems.

“Though it is not nice that people are using cannabis it is a fact of life. People go to places now where there is a bit of control and it is not being transferred to the streets or going underground. But you have to complete the system and allow them to produce.”

There is a country-wide ban on non-residents purchasing cannabis in the Netherlands, but some local authorities, including in Amsterdam, choose not to enforce it.

Depla said it was important to keep the system closed to ensure neighbouring countries were not unduly affected.

The firms involved in the trial would ideally produce 14-15 types of cannabis to satisfy customers, he said, and the prices would be regulated to ensure they did not drop too low and encourage use, or too far above the price of the drug’s street value.

He said: “You can control from the seed of the cannabis flower to the final item bought in the coffee shop. With eight coffee shops we have to work together, and there needs to be some sort of scale of production for quality and variety to be competitive.

“If the scale of production is too small, the different qualities of cannabis won’t be there and it is possible the street market will compete with you and instead of getting rid of the criminal organisations a new street market appears.“With the Rotterdam model it is difficult to get control of the consumers. It is possible for people under 18 to order all kinds of cannabis. The controlled system of the coffee shop will disappear. But it plays an important part in the whole system.

“What is very important is the public safety of the cannabis production.”

• This article was amended on 29 December 2017 to clarify that enforcement of rules on purchase of cannabis by non-residents may vary at the discretion of local authorities.


Daniel Boffey in Breda

The GuardianTramp

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