Netherlands Initiates Trial to Fully Legalize Cannabis

Photograph: Nick Gammon/AFP/Getty Images

   Cannabis users in two Dutch cities can now legally smoke as authorities initiate a trial aiming to potentially expand the country's tolerance of marijuana to full legality.

Describing it as a "historic moment," Health Minister Ernst Kuipers expressed this sentiment on Friday while observing the introduction of the first box of legal cannabis at the Baron coffee shop in the southern city of Breda.

Contrary to a common misconception abroad, cannabis is not already fully legal in the Netherlands. Despite being home to renowned coffee shops that attract cannabis enthusiasts, the drug exists in a legal grey area. The government aims to clarify this by launching a four-year trial, starting in Breda and the nearby city of Tilburg.

The consumption of small quantities of cannabis has technically been illegal in the Netherlands, but law enforcement has chosen not to enforce the law, following a "tolerance" policy since the 1970s. However, the production of cannabis and its supply to coffee shops has remained illegal and is not tolerated, forcing producers and coffee shop owners to operate in the shadows.

This situation has led to the involvement of criminal gangs, contributing to a rise in petty crime and antisocial behavior. Officials aim to address these issues with the current trial, hoping for a successful intervention.

"Criminal organisations took over that criminal market, and therefore coffee shop owners were depending on the criminal market, and that had to stop," explained Paul Depla, the mayor of Breda, in an interview with Agence France-Presse.

Under the trial, cannabis production will be restricted to a select number of farms, with close monitoring of the entire supply chain before the product reaches coffee shops. This approach aims to curb criminal involvement and ensure consumers have access to a high-quality product. Previously, consumers had no way of knowing the origin or potential alterations of the cannabis they purchased.

"The product will be clean, tested, pesticide-free," affirmed Ashwin Matai, the cultivation director at Holland High farm, set to legally supply coffee shops starting February.

The trial will involve measuring the levels of THC and CBD, the active components of cannabis, providing users with information about the potency of their joint.

Health Minister Ernst Kuipers stated, "From a public health perspective, we had no oversight of the process; we could not do any checks on any potential contamination of the products. Now we can do all that."

Independent researchers will closely monitor the trial, and the ultimate goal is to assess the potential for decriminalization based on the outcomes of this initiative.

When asked if the trial could pave the way for legalizing other drugs, Mayor Depla expressed caution, stating, "Let’s start with the legalization of cannabis and then we can see what will happen because I think some people are also afraid it will … lead to more people being addicted."

He added, "I think one thing is for sure. Everybody is glad that we can say farewell to the policy, which was hypocritical and not logical."

One uncertainty surrounding the proposed policy is the influence of Geert Wilders, whose far-right Party for Freedom secured 37 seats in the recent general election. The party advocates for the elimination of the tolerance policy, pushing for a "drug-free Netherlands."