Here's where the Netherlands stands on cannabis

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Slowly but surely, cannabis policy is changing in the Netherlands, where the government has agreed to undertake a six-year experiment that will allow select coffee shops to sell cannabis that has been cultivated and distributed through a select number of licensed growers. While some see that project as an encouraging development, Nicole Maalsté thinks the plan will actually see the legalization movement leave the Netherlands in the dust as it spreads globally, writes Mia Thomsin.

Maalsté has been conducting research in criminal environments associated with the cannabis market in the Netherlands for the last 25 years and wrote several books about the Dutch cannabis industry. She prides herself for looking at social problems from different perspectives. Nicole works with universities, governments, lawyers, journalists, interest groups and political parties and has published numerous books and essays on the weed industry. Her company 420 Consultancy conducts research and encourages their customers to regard all aspects of the market to make the most efficient decisions.

We recently chatted with Maalsté about the state of cannabis in the Netherlands. Here's what she had to say.

Many people in the world believe that – after forty years with cannabis coffee shops – the Netherlands are the frontrunners in cannabis legalization. In contrast to that, cannabis isn't even legal in the Netherlands, only decriminalized. VICE recently wrote that the Dutch merely “stumble towards legalization.” How would you describe the cannabis situation in the Netherlands?

I recognize what they say in VICE. Actually, I would even go further and say that we will be standing still for a while. We will be doing an experiment. The experiment will take about six years and we will miss the development in the world.

The idea for the experiment came from a compromise in our political coalition. Four parties work together in this coalition. Two of them are against regulating cannabis and one of them is not clear about it. That’s why they didn't want to go through with the law that was already in parliament to legalize cannabis. So they came up with the idea of an experiment: in ten cities, coffee shops will sell cannabis from legal production facilities. There will be ten licenses to grow. Many companies will try to get a license. But to get a license, you have to be Dutch and it has to be a Dutch company. So, the big companies, like Canopy Growth or Aurora, officially cannot participate. It is a scientific experiment too. They want to compare what is happening in these cities. After the summer the ten cities might be announced.

My problem with this experiment is that 90 percent of the Dutch coffee shops will not be involved. They will continue to buy and sell illegal cannabis. I would prefer if we could have gone through with the former law to legalize.

Is the scientific aspect of the experiment true research or an attempt to fulfill the UN regulations that say cannabis can only be used for medical reasons or in a scientific context?

This is not about the UN regulations. We have already been breaking them with our coffee shops for decades. It is fear: The government is afraid to be the first in Europe to legalize. Even after many years, cannabis still has a bad reputation in the Netherlands.

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You're worried the Netherlands will miss out on benefiting from global developments in the cannabis sector although many experts are Dutch. Some Dutch cannabis veterans are now collaborating with global cannabis companies in North America. In which way would you say they influence the market in Canada or some of the US states that have legalized cannabis?

In many of the places in Canada you see Dutch systems for growing: lamps, tables, water systems, ventilation, Dutch genetics. A few of the most famous seed companies are also Dutch companies. Actually, almost everything you see is Dutch. But there is disappointment: normally, when you see a system like that you have to adjust it to a specific plant. With Canada, there was not enough time. They had to grow too big, too quickly. And the available genetics were not ready to be grown in Canadian circumstances.

Cannabis experts turning to global money has an impact on the Netherlands too. How is the country reacting to the “green brain drain”?

Yes, they are going away. We need them here to do research. We could be very big in this industry.  Why should you give away a new upcoming industry? From an economic perspective, I think it is not very smart. We could be one of the leaders, as a country. Our universities could get more research grants. And international expertise that comes from here could help with a positive image in the Netherlands too. It is becoming a market of people who want to make a lot of money – regardless of quality. In Canada, I'm worried: The big players – Big Pharma, the tobacco industry – are taking over. In fact that is one good thing about the Dutch experiment: it keeps out the big players for a while.

In the Netherlands, it is currently legal to buy cannabis at a coffee shop, but it is unclear how the coffee shops get the big quantities of cannabis they sell. Also, medical cannabis is practically non-existent in the Netherlands. Who benefits from this paradox in-between-situation that the Netherlands have been in for such a long time?

To be honest – only illegal structures benefit from this. Policy makers don't understand the system enough. If you look into it closer – you'll see how big this system is. Many people are working to get the weed into the coffee shops. And all of them are working illegally. All of them could work in a legal way.

Medical cannabis is existent but there is only one medical cultivator – Bedrocan. This sector was kept very small. They are the only licensed producer. They only produce five different strains. They only produce the flower, no oil for example. The pharmacies can make oil out of it. People still think it is expensive, that it won't help and that they can't get the type of product they need. We did research on 9000 cannabis consumers. And even the consumers who also use cannabis for medical reasons don't use medical cannabis – they prefer the illegal markets and the coffee shops. There is a mismatch between what consumers want and what is offered. Consumers don't get the right information. In all these years, this research has never been conducted.

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Cannabis and cannabis-related products on sale in a Dutch cannabis carfe

And we see the same thing in Canada now. Nobody asked what the consumer needed. I don't understand it: every market that starts, does market research first! What does the consumer want? What should we produce? How is the market organized right now? What can we learn from that? There is an existing illegal market to learn from! In Canada and the Netherlands people still buy from the illegal market. It is important to know how it works, if you want to change that. This is what I always try to communicate to the government.

If the legal cannabis has a bad name, it is a small step to go and use the illegal sources.

As a tourist, I recently traveled to Maastricht and was hoping to be served in a coffee shop. They said they legally couldn't sell to non-Dutch customers and that we had to drive somewhere 30 kilometers from the border to buy. There, we found a backyard garage, painted all black inside and outside, with neon lights and skull decorations. All customers were guys in hoodies and band shirts. We felt like we were doing something really illegal. Meanwhile, in Canada, you buy cannabis in an open, bright and designed place that looks like a super-modern i-store. Staff is friendly and prepared to help and the customers are very diverse. Would it be fair to say that Dutch head shops celebrate the twilight image and have internalized the “not quite legal“ state they are in?

In the Netherlands, we have a tolerance policy. In this policy, it was never helpful to be too visible. The sellers didn't want to be very seen and transparent. It was helpful to be hiding. The rest of society sees it the same way: they don't accept it and want it hidden. Coffee shop owners have a license and they can lose it very easily. To invest, making your shop more open and attractive might be the wrong step: you might lose your shop tomorrow! It is still illegal for them to buy! But of course, if you go to Amsterdam, you will also find the nice shops. Everywhere in the Netherlands it is forbidden to let tourists enter the coffee shop, but Maastricht might be one of few places that actually goes through with it.

In the documentary “The Grass is Greener” the main thesis is that the demonization of cannabis in the USA comes from the racist urge of white policymakers to keep people of color out of their circles and put them into a place of hiding and incarceration. Do you think that racist prejudice plays a role in the current situation of slowing down legalization in the Netherlands too?

I don't think it is racist prejudice. Cannabis consumers in the Netherlands today are all kinds of people from different backgrounds and ethnicities, as well as lower and highly educated people. But the majority of the Dutch people don't know that: They don't see the consumers anywhere. Most people go to the coffee shop, buy, go home. Only the tourists stay out. There is one exception though: on Cannabis Liberation Day, you can see all kinds of people high everywhere: there are free concerts, speeches, presentations, mostly in Amsterdam. There is no alcohol, only cannabis – so it is very friendly. One of the sponsors is Dutch Passion, a seed company.

With regards to your biography, I noticed that you have been a senior researcher at Tilburg University till 2014. Many people would kill for a position like that. But you left the university to focus on your independent work as a consultant. Do you feel that you have more freedom in your current position?

I have just started a new business – 420 Consultancy. I have always preferred to look at myself as an in-between person. If I was just at university, my knowledge wouldn't reach the people who need it as easily. My research needs to be applied. I have studied other illegal markets before – cocaine, weapons – I did qualitative research, did many interviews, tried to understand the markets. What I see a lot is that the voice of the people themselves is often not heard by policy makers. Even the people who decide about the experiment: they hardly listen to coffee shop owners, to consumers…everybody has their own viewpoint. Policy, research and market are often talking in different languages because they are looking at the problem from a different angle – and I see myself as the translator.

How can organizations and companies benefit from your work as a consultant?

Many university studies look at consumers as a problem: “how often do you use?”  I did a big survey called Grasspoll and it is different. What I do, is asking people as normal consumers. I treat them in a very different way. Therefore, the answers are very different. Policymakers think: “If you use cannabis recreationally, you go to the coffee shop, if you are a medical user, you go to the pharmacy.” But many people use coffee shop products for medical reasons. If you don't understand that you cannot change the market.

Which dangers do you see if policymakers make decisions without properly consulting experts?

Oh, there are plenty of dangers. If I compare the cannabis industry to other ones – like cocaine or weapons – it used to be very different, much friendlier. For years you couldn't see things like robbery of harvests, in this industry. The players were hippies, activists. This changed about 15 years ago, when the police started chasing the growers. Many of the hippy growers then stopped. And now there are new players who are more interested in making money and who bring methods that you can usually see in the cocaine industry. These players also add things to make the product heavier, like sugar. The prices went up. A kilo doubled in price within a few years. That attracts different players again, who see a profitable market and add products without caring about quality.

In the coffee shops, we used to have many different varieties. Now, you can still see different names, but if you look closely they are not very different. The names are just names that somebody gave to it. If you see “White Widow” nobody knows if it is that or something else. The laws need to change.

Taking all your knowledge on cannabis, the industry and the legal systems into account, what would be your perfect utopia for the Netherlands and the world?

I would slowly, slowly, in an organic way, try to legalize everywhere. Add more products to the market. Research if it is working. Who wants it? Who benefits from it? And in this manner, I agree with the Dutch experiment. Making small steps, organize the market in a way, so that everyone can be a part of it – not only just the big players.

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