Front Door/Back Door: The Paradox of the Netherlands' Cannabis Policy

Coffee shop Amsterdam

The Netherlands' cannabis policy sits in uneasy limbo, with the evolution of consumer and coffee shop policies failing to be matched by regulation of the production and supply of marijuana for these businesses. Could this change in the near future?

Since 1976, the Dutch government has sought to regulate the “front door” of the Dutch coffee shop -- the sale and consumption of cannabis -- primarily through the country's Opium Act. While many believe this amounts to marijuana being legal under Dutch law, it is not. Rather, the Netherlands follows the principle of gedogencannabis is technically illegal, but there is a tolerance toward it from law enforcement. 

More concrete "front door" regulations were put in place in the early 1990s when the AHOJ-G criteria was introduced in 1991, and enacted later in 1994, (the G was introduced in 1995). This placed rules and limits on: advertising (A), the sale of hard drugs (H), nuisance (O), the sale to under-aged customers (J), and personal transaction size and stock limits for the coffee shop in grams (G). It also outlined the enforcement tools the tax office and law enforcement officials could use in order to regulate coffee shops.

The "back door," however, which refers to the production and cultivation of cannabis, remains completely unregulated. Supplying coffee shops with their product, therefore, is illegal. 

The front door/back door paradox creates an intriguing, though fundamentally flawed system, ultimately leaving the Dutch government with two options moving forward based on how untenable the current position is. The first option is to simply scrap the coffee shop system that has become synonymous with the Dutch liberal approach to soft drug regulation, while the other is to put in place a regulatory framework for supply and production so as to properly align the whole approach. 

The second option is of course not only favorable, but it is arguably more efficient as well. The lack of regulation of cannabis cultivation, for example, has seen a number of adverse effects; the average price of cannabis has increased in recent years, while the composition and quality of the drug has deteriorated, exposing users to increased health risks.

In fact, Doede de Jong, the Netherlands’ most renowned organic cannabis grower and civil rights activist for cannabis users, claimed in an interview that at one coffee shop the weed they are supplied with “is soaked in liquid lead.” By doing this, he said, producers are able to turn 66 lbs (almost 30 kg) of cannabis into 110 (almost 50 kg) increasing their profit margins while endangering the consumer’s health and safety.

As for organized crime, the extent of its impact on the cannabis market in the Netherlands is still unclear. It is reported that an estimated €21–42 million in untaxed annual profits are made by criminal organizations involved in the supply side of the cannabis market in Amsterdam alone, while the industry was estimated to be worth over €2 billion a year in 2008.

Cultivation and supply regulation could do a lot to combat organized crime in the Netherlands by cutting out the criminal middlemen. It would also have the added benefit of generating revenue for cities and municipalities while saving the Dutch state a large amount of money on law enforcement. For example, a working group of Dutch civil servants found that by regulating the back door of coffee shops, the police and criminal justice system could save €160 million a year while corporate and excise taxes could bring in a further €260 million.

In May 2013, the mayors of Maastricht, Sittard-Geleen, Kerkrade, Roermond, Heerlen and Venlo decided on bringing "an end to the criminal networks responsible for growing marijuana,” and began constructing the Joint Regulation Manifesto. Fifty four mayors have now endorsed the manifesto, which calls for the government to listen to the opinions of its cities by entering into a “national system of certified and regulated cannabis cultivation.”

Despite the cogent arguments put forward in the manifesto, it has continually been shot down or ignored by many ministers, including most notably Ivo Opstelten, the minister for Justice and Security. Opstelten argues that regulating the cultivation of cannabis in the Netherlands “cannot, and will not solve the problem,” and even went as far as to visit mayors all over the country in order to convince them to drop the issue. Opstelten also told Nos television: “even if there are 10 manifestos, the answer will remain a convinced no.”

Despite opposition, it seems some have had enough of waiting for politicians like Opstelten to change their minds; at least three municipalities have already begun preparing for the eventual regulation by experimenting with hemp cultivation. Whether this has any wider impact, though, on pressuring the national government to act on the matter remains to be seen.

The thorough regulation of the front door and the Dutch policy toward soft drugs including cannabis has been critically acclaimed and praised for helping reduce the criminalization of certain drug use. However, the government's side-stepping of, or indeed refusal to tackle the issue of the back door leaves both retailers and customers vulnerable to criminal influence. Should the Joint Manifesto see success, the Netherlands could once again be at the forefront of European marijuana regulation and could pave the way for more effective policy initiatives on the continent.