Dutch weed growers seek their fortunes in California

RNW archive

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Dutch weed growers and coffeeshop owners have already flown out to California. They are waiting for a referendum on the legalisation of marijuana, which will be held next week. They anticipate an opportunity to become rich men if the citizens of California vote in favour of legalisation.

The Netherlands has been a major source of inspiration for both the supporters and opponents of legislation. Supporters point to the success of the Dutch policy of tolerating the sale of small quantities of hashish and marijuana in so-called 'coffeeshops'. Opponents also use statistics from the Netherlands to support their view.

The man behind the referendum is 47-year-old Richard Lee. In 1991 he visited Amsterdam for the first time: "Fantastic. A wide variety of shops with coffeeshops paying tax and creating jobs. And it attracts tourists. We had to have that here too."

Coffeeshops with an Amsterdam feel
In 1999 he opened a Bulldog coffeeshop in Oakland, near San Francisco. With the same logo as the Amsterdam Bulldog and the same atmosphere. A sidewalk cafe, loud music and a smoking room where people with glazed expressions stare at a TV with the sound turned down. Of course you can't buy weed there yet, because of the police. However, they do tolerate you bringing your own stash along.

There is now a second coffeeshop in Oakland, the Blue Sky, which sells medical marijuana and has a similar Amsterdam feel.

In 2006 Richard Lee opened Oaksterdam University, modelled on the Cannabis College in Amsterdam. This gives courses relating to weed growing and is expanding fast. Compulsory subjects include law, the history of marijuana, and commodity studies. You can go on to train as a weed topper or coffeeshop manager. If California decides to legalise, this is where the experts will come from. The university - an unprotected title in the United States- has already awarded 12,000 diplomas.

'Oaksterdam'
The entire district in Oakland is known as Oaksterdam. Just like Amsterdam, there are bikes for hire and a cannabis gift shop. And there's an Amsterdam-style hashish museum. One of its most valued exhibits is an old price list from an Amsterdam coffeeshop, with the prices still in guilders!

Richard Lee came up with the legalisation referendum and paid for it out of his own pocket. It cost him 2.7 million dollars.

If it succeeds, the local authorities will issue licences for large-scale growing to supply the coffeeshops. The place is already swarming with Dutch coffeeshop owners and growers hoping for licences. "There's no doubt the Dutch weed industry would do very well here, since they have so much experience," says Lee. He plans to set up hundreds of Dutch-style coffeeshops.

Opponents also point to Amsterdam
Opponents of legislation also point to the Dutch model. Their main spokesperson is drug information officer John Redman.

"The other side are always talking about how weed does no harm and how wonderful it is in Amsterdam. So, let's look at the experiences in the Netherlands: the easier it is to get hold of weed and the more normal it's regarded to light up a joint, the greater the consumption."

He points out that marijuana addiction has caused serious problems in the Netherlands. However the figures for hashish and marijuana use in the Netherlands are actually lower than in other European countries with tougher legislation.

28.5 grams and four plants
Redman claims the amount of hashish and weed that coffeeshops are allowed to sell has been reduced due to problems with drug abuse.

"If the referendum succeeds, as much as 28.5 grams would be permitted in California and it would be legal to have four plants. Imagine how much worse it will be than in the Netherlands, where 0.5 grams has already cause problems."

Is he sure about these figures? "Of course, the drug information service in the US has been saying this for ten years." I google the Dutch figures for him: thirty grams is allowed for personal use, coffeeshops can sell five grams at a time, and you are allowed five plants. John Redman's face turns pale. Just at that moment a van arrives to take him to the airport. He leaves hastily without further comment.

The knock-on effect
If the legalisation proposal is accepted, US President Barack Obama will be faced with a serious problem. The federal laws making cannabis illegal are still in place, as are the international treaties. Sending federal agents to California to bring weed smokers before the federal courts would cost an enormous amount of money and he risks damaging his popularity in California. If he does nothing he will alienate other parts of the United States.

So far, the opinion polls predict the referendum will be a neck-and-neck race.