Opinion: Hemp wars

POSTED: 02/18/14 11:36 AM

The discussion about legalizing marijuana in the Netherlands is gaining momentum after 35 mayors signed a manifesto that pleads for regulating the cultivation of the soft drug. Not everybody is happy with this trend.

In the Volkskrant, a dispute erupted between columnist Martin Sommer and Derrick Bergman. Sommer quotes a French ambassador. “What a weird people you are, that links its ideal of freedom with a stimulant that does not benefit anybody.” Sommer refers to prostitution to make his point: that was going to be a normal and legal profession. The idea was not sound, he adds, and up to today, the large cities are struggling with the consequences.

What Sommer forgets is that prostitution – legal or not – has been around for as long as there are people on this earth. Recreational stimulants have been around for the longest time too. We are not talking about soft drugs and hard drugs, but also about alcohol and tobacco, to name just two examples. There is no way any government is ever going to manage to ban these stimulants from the face of the earth. Why would it be different with soft drugs?

Sommer paid a visit to the mayor of Roosendaal, one of the places where all coffee shops were closed in 2009, after the town nearly buckled under the weekly visits of 12,000 drugs tourists from Belgium and France. The mayor of Roosendaal firmly opposes the manifesto 35 of his colleagues have signed.

Sommer notes that 350 mayors did not sign the manifesto and that two-third of all Dutch municipalities have a zero tolerance policy towards coffee shops. For good measure, he adds that the manifesto-supporters have the upper hand “because they make more noise in the media.”

Sommer ridicules the notion that coffee shops lead to lower drug use among youngsters. He cites research by the Trimbos Institute that claims that students below the age of 18 use twice as much drugs as the European average.

The sympathy for the coffee shop, Sommer continues, has little to do with the local demand for soft drugs, but everything with the political makeup of the municipal council. “Coffee shops are politically left wing and there are quite some mayors that have signed the manifesto under pressure of their progressive municipal council.”

Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten maintains that 80 percent of the marijuana grown in the Netherlands is for export, not for local consumption. In Tilburg, there are reportedly 60 drugs gangs that devote their time to growing marijuana. NRC Handelsblad estimated that the gangs turn over more than half a billion euro a year – on a par with the cities complete budget. NRC reported that drugs cultivation is the largest employer in town and that most of the produce disappears to Turkey.

Sommer’s conclusion is scathing: “To promote health, no marijuana is better than regulated marijuana.”

Derrick Bergman attacks that position with a vengeance: “Sommer ought to explain this to the thousands of patients that buy cannabis from a pharmacy and benefit tremendously from it.”

Bergman adds that 41 municipalities – home to 70 percent of all coffee shops in the Netherlands – support the manifesto to regulate marijuana cultivation. In parliament, 73 out of 150 members support regulation. Among the population, support is 65 percent.

Bergman also notes that in places like Roosendaal, where all coffee shops were put out to pasture, drug use among youngsters has increased sharply. “Research shows that the illegal circuit in places without coffee shops is above average. They serve all ages with all kinds of drugs.”

Bergman furthermore contests the idea that 80 percent of all Dutch marijuana is exported. He quotes research that suggests the percentage is at best 12.

Bergman keeps his best argument for last where he counters Sommer’s position that no marijuana is better than regulated marijuana. “Even though no alcohol is healthier than regulated alcohol, for people’s health regulated alcohol is preferable to alcohol from clandestine distilleries.”

Bergman argues that Sommer sides with organized crime that is getting a firmer grip on the industry due to the increased repressive measures. “Internationally the ban on marijuana is walking on its last legs,” Bergman concludes. “But in the Netherlands the hemp war continues, with the truth as its first victim.”

So far, not much noise has been made about regulating marijuana in St. Maarten – not by politicians and not by consumers either. Maybe this is because the product is so freely available: we do not really need coffee shops. But the development in cultivation requires the attention of public health authorities; the THC-content in some marijuana has become so high due to improved cultivation methods, that these products are now considered as hard drugs – on a par with heroin and cocaine. That alone ought to catch the attention of lawmakers and regulators, before the situation gets too far out of control.

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