Cannabis Crimes in Holland: 'It's not Our Intention to Close Down the Coffee Shops'

The Netherlands' marijuana tolerance policy was meant to prevent use of harder drugs. But Max Daniel, who heads up the Netherlands police unit charged with combatting the organized crime behind the cannabis trade, says a violent industry has developed with exports of €2 billion.

A marijuana joint smoulders in an ashtray in a coffee shop in Rotterdam.
REUTERS

A marijuana joint smoulders in an ashtray in a coffee shop in Rotterdam.

NRC Handelsblad: Officer Daniel, what is so wrong about growing cannabis?

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This article has been provided courtesy of NRC Handelsblad. NRC Handelsblad and its companion Web site NRC.nl are two of the most respected brands in Dutch journalism.
Max Daniel: For a long time, we've had the image of people growing a few plants in the attic. It began in the 1970s, when idealistic young people with green thumbs started to grow cannabis on houseboats. The overall production was on a small scale. The turning point came around 25 years ago, when a number of entrepreneurs decided to make use of the country’s agricultural colleges and laboratories. They managed to increase the amount of the active ingredient THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) in their plants from an average of between 4 percent and 9 percent to around 18 percent. Some strains have even reached 30 percent.

NRC Handelsblad: Is there more cannabis exported from the Netherlands than there is sold in the so-called Dutch "coffee shops"?

Daniel: Yes, demand from other countries has increased and prices have soared. Foreign buyers pay three or four times the Dutch price. Some suppliers have added iron filings or sand to increase the weight of their shipments, a practice which has previously only been observed with cocaine and heroin. There is a lot of demand from Britain, Belgium, Germany and France, as well as from the Scandinavian countries. We have estimated that at least 80 percent of what is grown in the Netherlands is exported. More than €2 billion ($2.7 billion) worth of cannabis is exported every year.

NRC Handelsblad: Coffee shops are allowed to possess and sell cannabis and hashish that they have grown, but they are not allowed to buy large quantities from elsewhere and then resell it. How do the police handle that?

Daniel: Coffee shops are allowed to have 500 grams (17.6 ounces) on their premises, and individuals can have five grams (0.18 ounces). The policy of allowing shops to sell their supplies via the front door but not buy via the back door has created a gray area that is, by definition, good for doing business. There are mega coffee shops that sell between 10 and 12 kilos (22-26.5 pounds) a day and hardly have any Dutch customers. A coffee shop in Terneuzen (a city on the coast near the border with Belgium) had a turnover of more than €30 million ($40.2 million) a year.

NRC Handelsblad: Are there police officers at the back door?

Daniel: We have started to crack down on the supply side, but we still don't have a coordinated policy. We are slowly getting a better picture of where the coffee shops are hiding their large stashes. We plan to seize these because most of them are intended for export.

NRC Handelsblad: The Netherlands allows coffee shops because they keep the markets for soft and hard drugs separate. At the same time, though, the police are closing down the cannabis plantations that supply the coffee shops…

Daniel: It is not our intention to close down the coffee shops. We are fighting organized crime, which in many instances has become involved in the production of cannabis.

NRC Handelsblad: Who are the criminals?

Daniel: In the production of cannabis, the criminal and non-criminal worlds have become increasingly intertwined. Many people have become rich by growing cannabis. You can become a millionaire within 10 years. Many of the proceeds are invested legally in real estate. But I don’t believe that someone who has had people killed 14 or 15 years ago can turn into a good citizen.

NRC Handelsblad: Do they kill one another?

Daniel: One man asked his nephew to look after his house for six months. When he returned, his home was filled with cannabis plants. He got rid of them. Afterwards he was shot in the knees and told he needed to repay €18,500 ($24,800). We know there are shops that bring cannabis-growing equipment directly to people's homes. They then provide the names and addresses to criminal organizations, which come and steal the harvest. Today, cannabis is involved in nearly all major cases involving murder, weapons and drugs.

NRC Handelsblad: If things have gotten so out of hand, why did the police not act sooner?

Daniel: Because everyone, including the police, said: "It's only cannabis." It costs the police just as much to arrest someone for cannabis as for cocaine. But for dealing in coke you go to prison, whereas for cannabis you just have to pay a laughably small fine. So police don't have much incentive to invest in the latter. In our society, we have been brought up to believe that cannabis is not something criminal.

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