Cannabis in the Netherlands

Date: 18.12.2020

''The main difference between cannabis from coffeeshops and from pharmacies is the quality and the consistency.''

The Netherland has been the go-to place for cannabis users as people from all over the world still come to Amsterdam’s coffeeshops when they want to enjoy cannabis in a seemingly legal way. Due to this reputation, most people believe that cannabis is legal in the Netherlands. But this is really not the case, cannabis is in fact illegal in the Netherlands. Cannabis use has been decriminalised, and the possession of a small quantity of cannabis is tolerated by the authorities. If an individual is caught in possession of up to five grams of cannabis, the authorities will most likely confiscate the cannabis without fining or prosecuting the individual. However, the individual can still be fined and even sent to prison if the authorities consider that the cannabis use was a threat to the health of young people (for example, by using it near schools or on public transport.

In the Netherlands, selling cannabis in coffeeshops is legal and often profitable, but growing and distributing it are not. Coffeeshop owners or managers have to rely on the illegal cannabis trade to stock their shelves. The current law puts coffeeshop managers in a precarious position, which is often called the ‘backdoor supply problem’. They’re allowed to sell cannabis, but they can’t buy it through conventional/legal means. So the situation also in the Netherlands in not as ideal as one might think. Medicinal cannabis is offered through a completely separate channel, since 2003. It is grown by a licensed producer (Bedrocan) and distributed to patient, on prescription only, through regular pharmacies.

In my PhD research I dealt primarily with cannabis chemistry. I realized that almost all questions people had about medicinal cannabis, were related to chemistry and composition. The main question I tried to address was: what makes cannabis medicinal, what chemicals are hidden inside it, and how can it best be used? I also studied if vaporizing is better than smoking and if preparing a cannabis tea has any value. The main difference between cannabis from coffeeshops and from pharmacies is the quality and the consistency. When you buy cannabis from a coffeeshop or a street dealer, you never know for sure what you get. The chemical composition may be different every time, even when the product has the same name, like 'White Widow' or 'Amnesia Haze'. I know this because I did some studies into that too. But more importantly, coffeeshop cannabis may contain a large number of contaminants, including pesticides, heavy metals, microbes or even synthetic cannabinoids. You cannot smell, taste or see these contaminants so you may not even be aware you consume them. If there is a serious discussion about legalizing recreational cannabis use, then we need to address the standardization and quality control of that cannabis. My research findings on vaporizing were became an important part in getting the Volcano vaporizer approved as medical device. And my cannabis tea study is still one of the few ever done on this topic, showing that cannabis tea is a potent brew of cannabinoids and their acid forms, underlining the reasoning many patients are using this method of consumption.

I believe cannabis will become the 'traditional' medicine that has made the biggest leap forward into 'modern' medicine. As a result, I expect many more psychoactive plant medicines to follow which may revolutionize the way we perform medicine. After all, when cannabis can make it as modern medicine, how can we stop other plants from following the same path towards modern medicine. Yes, the future will be full of plant-based medicines. And research by trained scientists will support this trend, where the study focus is based on what real patients need. Often, research is too much defined by commercial interests, or academic preferences. Cannabis is a medicine by the people, for the people. Science and medicine going hand in hand for individualized and personal natural medical approaches, this is what I hope for and see in the future.