The plant is not the problem, prohibition is
Until recently, coffeeshops were free to sell cannabis to all customers, whether Dutch citizens or foreign tourists. Now, customers are required to have Dutch citizenship and a club card. Illegal trade is flourishing and residents are complaining.
Last week I visited the Cannabis Liberation Day, an annual festival organized by the Alliance for Abolishing the Cannabis Prohibition. Their slogan: the plant is not the problem, prohibition is. A day filled with talks and music. I found a happy bunch of people there, as you can imagine. However, the Alliance is not happy with the recriminalization of cannabis. And neither are many other people and organizations. In the Netherlands, growing, selling and buying cannabis is illegal, but the government tolerates the trade of cannabis in coffeeshops and citizens are allowed grow it at home.
The Dutch policy towards cannabis is thus quite lenient. But things are changing. This year’s Liberation Day was themed around a new policy that requires coffeeshops to become private clubs serving a local market and Dutch citizens only. Only club members are allowed to buy – they have to have a club card or a ‘weed card’ (wietpas). This new policy is the answer to drug-related nuisance and crime in municipalities near the border of the country. Germans, Belgians and foreigners from farther away travel to border municipalities to get their weed and hash. All this traffic and trade causes nuisance and so the government aims to exclude drug tourists from the market. The policy is currently in effect in the three southern provinces, but soon all coffeeshops will be turned into clubs.
From the very first proposal, people have protested against this policy. Looking at the stories in the media, they seem to have good reasons. Coffeeshop owners have seen a dramatic decrease in the volume of sales (an 80 per cent loss of turnover has been estimated) and some say they have had to fire staff. Regular shops say they are suffering from decreased turnover as well – imagine the consequences of abandoning drugs tourism for the Amsterdam tourist industry.
But whereas the loss of foreign clientele is a desired outcome, other effects seem to counter the policy goals. That is, instead of making streets safer, nuisance and crime are on the rise. The trade in cannabis has moved to the streets, where it is illegal and causes more nuisance for residents. In Maastricht, reports of drug-related nuisance showed a fourfold increase. A council member in Venlo, spoke of a ‘tsunami of drug runners’. Among them are also dealers in hard drugs (drugs that are addictive and damaging to health). The introduction of the weed card would therefore appear to stimulate the merging of the markets for soft and hard drugs, making hard drugs more accessible and drawing serious criminals into a previously crime-free market.
Nonetheless, outgoing minister Opstelten of Security and Justice is ‘satisfied’. But when the negative consequences are more damaging than the original problems, there is only one proper response: abandon this crime-facilitating policy. Considering one side effect of legalizing cannabis should persuade all politicians: legalization makes it possible to collect excise duty and saves the costs of policing, which means 1 billion Euros extra income per year for the government. That should be satisfying.