Cannabis reform in the Netherlands – a flawed plan

As the debate about the legalisation of cannabis production has been raised again lately by the local councils in the Netherlands, the Dutch government has other plans in a more repressive way : Justice minister Ivo Opstelten and junior health minister Martin van Rijn plan to classify cannabis with more than 15% of THC (the psychoactive compound in the cannabis that creates the high) as a hard drug, alongside heroin or cocaine.

The average rate of THC in the cannabis sold in the Netherlands has increased significantly within the last 10 years. The cannabis sold in the Netherlands in 2012 contained in average between 15 and 17% of THC.

The government claims that this situation needs to be tackled because of health issues : higher rates of THC in cannabis will lead to more severe health consequences.

This controversial project has generated a huge debate for several months within the country. Its opponent, among them obviously the coffee-shop owners, stress the flaws of the project : it will be very difficult to put in practice and is likely to banish the soft consumers from the coffee shop to the streets, ruining therefore the positive regulation aspects of the Dutch law.

Trimbos, a Dutch institute working on addiction, has been performing investigations into the rates of the active compounds in the Cannabis sold in the coffee-shops in the Netherlands for more than 10 years. Its 2012 report1 stresses that, after the increase of the rate of THC from 1999 to 2004, stabilization occurred around 17% of THC content in cannabis. The cannabis most commonly used in the Netherlands today has the same rate than other European countries.

This report highlights that the scientific literature does show the link between the rate of THC and the risks of mental damage but doesn’t determine a precise significant ceiling above which the consumption of the product would become more dangerous. More interestingly, this report stresses the fact that some other active compounds of cannabis influence its risks in the consumption of cannabis : some evidence shows that the CBD might reduce the effects of THC. Thus, the ratio of CBD/THC appears much more relevant to assess the risks of cannabis rather than the sole percentage of THC. In this respect, the Dutch reform project seems flawed.

UCL carried out research in 2008 that gave evidence that smoking cannabis with a significant content of THC caused much more health problems than smoking cannabis with THC and CBD, the CBD substance acting like protection against the negative symptoms caused by the THC. In practice, those two substances have distinct and quite opposite effects on the body: THC can generate paranoid and delusional symptoms whereas CBD tends to counterbalance them. [About this issue, you can read also : http://www.talkingdrugs.org/dont-make-a-hash-of-it-the-link-between-cannabis-and-psychosis ]

The Dutch government is being accused of blindness and stubbornness while standing firm with its idea of limiting the THC rate to 15% despite all the counterarguments. One can easily understand why: this minuscule 2% gap between the present THC rate and the future legal limit is going to generate big social and economic problems without targeting the initial health problem. Focusing on the THC/CBD ratio would seem a much better idea than insisting on focusing the reform on THC.

1-THC-concentraties in wiet, nederwieten hasj in Nederlands coffeeshops, Raymond Niesink, Sander Rigter, trimbos Instituut, 2011-2012 http://www.trimbos.nl/webwinkel/productoverzicht-webwinkel/alcohol-en-drugs/af/~/media/files/inkijkexemplaren/af1148%20thc%20concentraties%202012_web.ashx