Today’s Opinion: Ganja experiment

POSTED: 06/1/11 12:20 PM

Many Caribbean islands, St. Maarten included, live under a permanent ganja-cloud. The soft drug is so commonly used that is does not really make any sense to prosecute people who are caught with small amounts in their possession. But up to this day, the law does not make a distinction between ganja and a hard drug like cocaine.
The Netherlands has long had a very tolerant policy towards soft drugs; not towards the hard core dealers in massive shipments, but towards citizens who enjoy smoking a joint. That’s how the by now infamous coffee shops came about – a most typical Dutch solution. Clients are allowed to buy marijuana legally in these establishments, but the coffee shop owners buy their produce from criminal elements.
Over time, some of these coffee shops became so successful that the law interfered and closed them down. One of the more humorous rules in the soft drug policy is that a coffee shop is not allowed within a 500 meter radius of schools. Why it is then okay to have a coffee shop standing at 501 meters from a school has never been explained.
The current Dutch government is tough on drugs, but not everybody in the country agrees. Take Utrecht for instance. That municipality intends to continue with an experiment for legal marijuana cultivation. Basically residents of Utrecht will be allowed to have a maximum of five so called nederwiet-plants per person, and the crop must be intended for personal use.
This way, Utrecht wants to take part of the nederwiet-cultivation out of the illegality and to offer users over the age of 18 an alternative for the coffee shop. The argument is that the product sold in coffee shops has per definition been grown illegally.
But the drugs memorandum the government published last week seems to get in the way of Utrecht’s plans. “Experiments like the one proposed by Utrecht are at odds with current legislation and international obligations,” says Justice Minister Opstelten. Together with Public Health Minister Schippers Opstelten maintains that the core of the government’s policy is that every form of cannabis-cultivation is punishable and is and remains prohibited. The policy is based on a 2005 research into experiments with legalizing nederwiet-cultivation.
But in Utrecht politicians read that report too, and they found a way out. It says clearly that it is possible to regulate cannabis-cultivation at the national level, an alderman who supports the experiment says.
Utrecht claims that its experiment is focused on public health. There is no supervision for coffee shops, so customers have no idea what they are buying. The soft drugs they offer could contain harmful substances, they could be cultivated with pesticides and they could have been dried too quickly. The user also has no influence on the thc-levels in the drug. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the active ingredient of nederwiet.
Utrecht is still working on its plan and it could take until the end of next year before it takes off. Utrecht also has a second experiment in the making: controlled cannabis-use for addicts who are under treatment by a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Utrecht wants to obtain its soft drugs for this experiment from the Bureau for Medicinal Cannabis, a government organization that supplies the soft drug to pharmacies and research facilities.
These experiments are worth looking at. Drugs are like alcohol and prostitution – they will always be part of any society. St. Maarten’s policy has so far been one of laissez-faire, but maybe it is time to take this issue in a different direction. There are people on our island who smoke as many as forty joints a day, so they must be eternally stoned.
There are obviously also people who make a business out of ganja cultivation, smuggling and selling. By legalizing cultivation on a limited scale for personal use, the crime element will obviously not completely disappear but it will diminish. That will give law enforcement in turn the time it so badly needs for dealing with more serious issues. A combination of the two Utrecht-experiments with a local initiative to educate our new generation about the ins and outs of soft drug use wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

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