Dutch can no longer claim to be world leaders on cannabis

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Amsterdam, long known as Europe’s most sinful playground, may be seeing some welcome changes to its antiquated system of coffee-shop regulation very soon.

Although the Netherlands was the first country in the world to regulate the sale of recreational cannabis, it has never created a system to regulate the production of the cannabis that is sold out of coffee shops. Only the production of medical cannabis is regulated, and it’s sold exclusively under prescription, with police typically turning a blind eye to “backdoor” acquisitions of unregulated black-market cannabis products by coffee shops.

So, basically, the Dutch have been grappling for decades with a paradoxical system: one where someone can obtain a licence to operate a coffee shop but with no legal source of obtain product. As you can imagine, this has resulted in arrests and seizures of people and property due to illegal production sites, smuggling through borders, and the influx of organized crime.

It has also led to a marketplace with product of unknown potency and purity. Keep that in mind the next time you are eyeing that gram bud for 30 euros.

Once a global leader in progressive drug policy, today the Netherlands lags behind countries like Canada, Portugal, and Uruguay, where recreational sales are federally regulated. Although medical-cannabis production is regulated by the Dutch government, a more diverse range of such products—like oil-based tinctures—has only recently started to become available to patients.

This year, Dutch authorities initiated a welcome change to this policy by allowing about a dozen municipalities to launch pilot programs that permit different forms of supply-chain regulation to be tested by a select group of coffee shops. The types of regulatory frameworks being tried range from small-scale production arrangements that allow each coffee shop to register members who grow a certain number of plants (currently the model in Spain and Uruguay) to a state-owned monopoly—as is the case with Bedrocan, the single federally licensed supplier of prescription medical cannabis for all of the Netherlands.

Many fear that a state monopoly could lead to a lack of product variety, as is the case in the medical market, while others object to the exclusion of the private sector from this potentially lucrative opportunity. For now, there is little else to do but wait and see what results from this latest edition of the social experiment that provided the world with the first glimpse of cannabis regulation.

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