Steven Senne/AP

Criminal gangs have prospered from the Netherlands’ ban against growing marijuana. Can city-approved cannabis freeze them out of a legalized trade?

The Netherlands’ permissive approach to cannabis may be well-known, but the country’s coffeeshops (as cannabis cafés are called) have long grappled with a head-scratching contradiction.

While the coffeshops’ trade is perfectly legal, that’s not the case for growing and producing the cannabis products they sell. Those actions can be punished with stiff fines, forcing the industry underground and making it difficult for authorities to monitor the quality of products sold to consumers. Perhaps more importantly, it means that the growers who supply the products often, perhaps inevitably, have links to organized crime.

This autumn, however, 10 Dutch cities are trying out a possible solution: municipally approved weed.

Called the “weed test” locally, the experiment will work as follows. Each city will only permit the sale of cannabis products that come from officially approved cannabis growers within the Netherlands. The participating cities’ coffeeshops will thus only be allowed to stock weed that has been monitored and tested by officially designated local laboratories, and sold with accurate labelling of its levels of THC.

The weed test doesn’t include Amsterdam: It’s restricted to medium-sized cities that are large enough to support coffeeshops, but small enough to make enforcement easy. The cities in the trial range from 38,000 residents to over 200,000, and include the cities of Groningen, Arnhem, and Breda. It will also take some time to get things going: The process of finding and approving growers means this official cannabis may not hit the market until 2021.

By finding a way to bring this trade fully above ground, the trial could still ultimately provide a template for other cities and states grappling with the quasi-legal status of cannabis. That, however, is only if the trial really works.

The Netherlands’ current laws might surprise people who see the country as an anything-goes, weed-smoker’s paradise. Cannabis can indeed be openly sold and consumed, and its easy availability seems to have done little to boost usage. (The Netherlands’ cannabis consumption has remained notably lower than the European average for some decades.) But the illegal status of the growing of plants for cannabis production is a notable departure from the other, more permissive laws concerning sale and use.

“It’s almost the same as being allowed to buy beer in a cafe, but not being allowed to brew one,” Paul Depla, the mayor of Breda, told the Dutch Broadcast Foundation. “[In that situation] an illegal brewery would be set up tomorrow.”

That illegality makes it hard to ensure that users get a clean product whose effects are largely known. Consumer protection, however, is not the most serious of the concerns that arise as a result. The Netherlands may in general be a pretty safe place to walk the streets, but its record for organized crime is poor. The country is a hub for Europe’s illicit drug trade, and police petitioning for more resources have warned that the country now “fulfills many characteristics of a narco-state,” where a parallel underground economy has emerged.

The cannabis trade helps fuel this. The province of Brabant, where several cities participating in the scheme are located, has sometimes been referred to as the “weed shed of Europe,” a place where organized gangs take the risks that small-time growers are unwilling to. While their product may not be more harmful than other fully legal drugs, this means that their profits are funneled into a network whose activities include trafficking harder drugs, and which not uncommonly uses teenagers as go-betweens. Wresting control of production from these gangs seems prudent, to say the least.

That’s not to say it’ll be easy. The Dutch plans are very similar to rules adopted by Canada last autumn, which legalized both production and supply. The early signs from the country suggest that criminality in cannabis production can prove singularly difficult to root out. A recent fact-finding mission to North America by Dutch police found that, despite Canada now possessing outlets for state-supervised, legally produced cannabis, the black market still undercuts these in price, creating a large clandestine market.

Indeed, the lines between legal and illegal production had blurred. Some legitimate producers may in fact be fronts from gangs, while much production from officially-approved growers could still be sold on the black market. Meanwhile the legal system was struggling to manage the situation and distinguish between legal and illegal production. These are not necessarily arguments against legalizing production, but they do show how entrenched criminal patterns can be after many decades of prohibition.

The Dutch experiment seems aware of these possible pitfalls—indeed, this is the reason the weed test is being couched as an experiment. While it will require THC levels to be stated on packaging, participating cities will not place limits on these, thus reducing the likelihood of users seeking stronger alternatives on the black market. The scheme will also stipulate that coffee shop customers get a reasonably broad choice of products, with each outlet offering 15 varieties of weed and 10 varieties of hash.

As the scheme starts (the first stage is finding suitable growers) there’s still some ambivalence among the public as to how it will function. Far more solid, however, is a sense that the status quo doesn’t work. As a local politician in the participating city of Zaanstad told newspaper Het Parool,“The current situation, where you can legally buy weed in a coffee shop but can’t supply it legally, is crooked. ”

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