Since the introduction of the controversial Weed Pass (“Wietpas”) to the southern provinces of the Netherlands in June this year, authorities have reported significant upswings in cannabis-related petty crime. The protests of municipalities not yet subject to the law are becoming ever more strident...
Since the introduction of the controversial Weed Pass (“Wietpas”) to the southern provinces of the Netherlands in June this year, authorities have reported significant upswings in cannabis-related petty crime. The protests of municipalities not yet subject to the law are becoming ever more strident as the feared day approaches and they will also be expected to refuse sales of cannabis to those without a pass.
In Limburg alone, 386 people have been arrested for buying or selling cannabis illegally since the weed pass came into force, either in street deals or through the spread of ‘speakeasy’-style outlets, often found in private homes. It is not only tourists who are risking arrest to purchase illegally, but also Dutch citizens appalled at the loss of anonymity associated with registration, which involves ID and address checks.
Negative impact of the weed pass on Maastricht
An exemption for Amsterdam?In Maastricht, capital city of Limburg province, the number of street dealers has noticeably increased; in addition, it is estimated that up to 345 jobs and €33 million ($41m) in annual turnover have been wiped out since the introduction of the weed pass. Mayor Onno Hoes made a dramatic U-turn earlier this month when he wrote to city councilors recommending a cessation of the compulsory registration policy, stating that very few Dutch citizens had signed up. Local chapters of the liberal VVD party are also urging the party’s leader, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, to reconsider the policy. Rotterdam’s mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb last week expressed his deep misgivings concerning the Wietpas, stating that it “does not work and never will work”. It is unclear whether he will refuse to adopt the policy, but he has nominally joined the ranks of the dissident southern VVD politicians currently clamoring for a change in direction.
An exemption for Amsterdam?
Amsterdam’s city council has requested an exemption from the imminent introduction of the weed pass, citing the devastating effect on tourism of excluding visitors to the capital city from the coffeeshops there. In Amsterdam, up to 23% of tourists visit a coffeeshop during their stay (although some reports put it as high as 50%), and the industry there is estimated to generate up to a third of national annual turnover and tax revenue from cannabis. The lack of reliable information regarding the pass is already beginning to affect tourism, and anecdotal reports of taxi drivers and hoteliers in Amsterdam exploiting tourists’ ignorance in order to sell them cannabis abound.
Amsterdam mayor Eberhard van der Laan has stated that Amsterdam has few drug-related crimes, and that a compromise is needed. In an apparent acknowledgment of Amsterdam’s unique position within the Netherlands, junior Justice Minister Fred Teeven earlier this month told the respected local news channel AT5 that the introduction of the weed pass in Amsterdam would proceed in consultation with city authorities; it is unclear what compromise will be sought.
Weed pass aims to monitor purchases
The various negative implications for personal privacy associated with the implementation of the weed pass system have led to increasing uncertainty and alarm among the native Dutch. One such concern is that the Wietpas aims to monitor customer purchases by making it necessary to use a PIN (personal bank) card. The VVD stated their intention to enforce this in their 2012 election manifesto; it is unclear whether they will pursue this, but it has nonetheless resulted in a dramatic reduction in public confidence and acceptance of the scheme.
Consequences of restricting coffeeshop sales
The means of production and supply of cannabis in the Netherlands is still entirely black-market. There is no regulation of the quality of cannabis grown in the country, save for a tiny fraction of total production accounted for by the sole government-approved medical producer, Bedrocan BV. Although inferior to medical-grade cannabis, it is arguable that the quality of commercially-available products has remained relatively high due to the safe and open nature of coffeeshop transactions, where all customers have the luxury of choosing from a variety of shops and can reject undesirable products with impunity. Furthermore, the results of the fiercely-touristic annual Cannabis Cup, although occasionally controversial, are hugely important in encouraging better-quality products. Although the Cannabis Cup will go ahead in Amsterdam as usual in November this year, it will be impossible to sustain any such events in the future if the weed pass excludes tourists from patronizing coffeeshops.
Ultimately, if coffeeshops become a less viable source of supply than street dealers, the quality of cannabis products available is likely to take a nosedive, especially given that there are no standards in place to ensure quality on the production side. Concurrent efforts to restrict commercial production could easily cause a repeat of the problems with contaminated cannabis that occurred in 2006-2009, when a combination of increased grow-room raids and economic difficulties affecting the export market led to a dramatic increase of cannabis treated with sugar, sand and even ground glass. Even some of the more reputable coffeeshops fell victim to this problem, as the treatments became ever harder to perceive with the naked eye.
The issue of flawed legislation
This serious problem highlights the counter-intuitive nature of Dutch cannabis legislation, and demonstrates just how dangerous the Weed Pass policy could prove. It is imperative that the Dutch government establish a truly workable system. Many of the problems cited by proponents of the pass are demonstrably a result of the ‘ backdoor policy‘ – the fact that there is a great deal of untaxed money to be made from the production of cannabis means that the criminal element will inevitably be drawn to it, whereas correct and legal methods of production would not only create thousands of legal jobs but also provide opportunities to regulate quality and prevent dangerous contaminants entering the supply chain.
Will the weed pass be enforced in Amsterdam?
It remains to be seen how the yet-to-be-formed coalition government will tackle the issue, but it is increasingly likely that even if the weed pass system is put into place, it will be sloppily enforced, as with the tobacco ban of 2008. Many establishments in Amsterdam and elsewhere simply disregarded the ban and in 2010 it was overturned for small establishments and those staffed solely by their owners. In Maastricht, which has just fourteen coffeeshops, enforcement of the Wietpasis straightforward; Amsterdam, with over 150 coffeeshops, will be much harder to regulate, so a similar approach to the weed pass may not prove to be their best strategy.