- 02 May 08
The Netherlands has long been a byword for liberalism in relation to cannabis. But the Calvinist attitudes of the current administration there look set to change that.
The de facto decriminalisation of cannabis in The Netherlands has made that country a bastion of enlightened drugs policy since the 1970s. But all that is about to change.
With the Christian-dominated government, under the leadership of the devoutly Calvinist Jan Peter Balkerende, cracking down on what it sees as Holland’s vices, it was inevitable they would turn their attentions to overturning the country’s tolerant cannabis policy.
A new drugs bill, introduced to parliament this month, proclaims that it will stamp out ‘drug tourism’ and contains a number of measures aimed at emasculating the coffeeshop system through which cannabis is currently – legally – sold. The long term aim is to reverse the policy of tolerance within ten years.
The bill jumbles together a number of different anti-drug policies. Much against the advice of their own health experts, the bill bans both magic mushrooms and the popular party pill ingredient BZP. It also bans smoking in staff-accessible areas of coffeeshops, as well as giving local authorities new powers to shut down shops which cause a public nuisance or which happen to be located within a certain distance of a school.
Tellingly, the school radius is left at the discretion of local authorities and amounts to a blank cheque to clear coffeeshops from less liberal municipalities.
Considering that it’s already government policy not to issue new coffeeshop licences, it seems clear that the intention is for the coffeeshop regime to die along with its current licence holders. Those who remain in the game (roughly two-thirds of Holland’s coffeeshops have been closed since 1990) must abide by contradictory rules which ban the wholesale purchase of cannabis but allow its sale in small quantities. One coffeeshop owner memorably explained that his stock simply fell from the sky.
The traditional attitude of the authorities has been to turn a blind eye to the illegal aspect of the trade. Not any more. Several coffeeshops have been closed down recently for violating the laws on possession of cannabis.
Ironically, the new drugs bill comes after intense lobbying from the coffeeshop industry for cannabis cultivation to be legalised, so that coffeeshop operators would no longer have to work with one hand in the black market. This call was rejected by an increasingly emboldened right wing government, which has also said that it aims to shut down the grow shops, which provide growing equipment and advice to would-be cannabis cultivators.
The new drugs bill also makes it an offence to pass on information on cannabis cultivation. How the Orwellian aspect of this can be enforced remains to be seen, but there is no doubt but that the current Dutch government is determined to dismantle Holland’s reputation for being liberal on drugs.
With its current term of office due to run until 2011, the administration still has plenty of time to turn what was once Europe’s most liberal and tolerant country into one of its crudest and most authoritarian.