The Dutch experience: Cannabis regulation will not make the sky fall

Malta is on the verge of taking a historic step towards sensible cannabis regulation, with the Responsible Use of Cannabis Bill. Over 45 years of cannabis regulation in the Netherlands have proven a few things. First: the sky will not fall. Second: if you regulate cannabis, do it right and don’t forget the production. 

Long before the new German government of Olaf Scholz decided to regulate cannabis for adult use, cannabis reform has been gaining traction across Europe. The Netherlands are not alone anymore, like we were for so long. 45 years ago, in 1976, the Dutch drug law was fundamentally changed to make a distinction between cannabis products and other illegal drugs. This change paved the way for our famous cannabis coffeeshops and our tolerance policy for cannabis.

From a public health perspective, the Dutch cannabis policy has been a resounding success. Cannabis consumers do not have to resort to the black market, because there are coffeeshops where they can buy small amounts of cannabis if they are 18 years or older. The crucial ‘separation of markets’, meaning cannabis consumers should not come into contact with other illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine etc., has worked and is still working. This is a valuable lesson: regulated sales prevent cannabis consumers from coming into contact with other drugs. Black market dealers basically sell anything to anyone, no matter their age.

Regulated sales prevent cannabis consumers from coming into contact with other drugs.

Cannabis use in the Netherlands lies around the European average and few consumers develop problematic use, certainly compared to alcohol. Thanks to regulation, cannabis has lost much of its “forbidden fruit” appeal, especially for young people. Coffeeshops are strictly regulated and adhere to the age limit and other rules. Most of them offer advice on safe and responsible use by means of leaflets in multiple languages. The social setting stimulates responsible use. Most coffeeshops offer employees courses to increase their knowledge of cannabis.  

So far so good. But the Dutch politicians and policymakers made one big mistake in 1976, that for decades wasn’t addressed by their successors. They regulated use, possession and limited sales of cannabis, but not production or wholesale. This inconsistency became euphemistically known as “the backdoor problem”. It has resulted in criminal involvement and violence, unsafe and unsound growing methods, inferior products and other unnecessary problems. This is also a valuable lesson: don’t forget to regulate the production.

The Maltese Responsible Use of Cannabis Bill is by no means perfect, but it surely is more consistent than the Dutch policy. There will be no coffeeshops in Malta, but Cannabis Associations, that must adhere to strict rules and limitations. Crucially, adults can grow their own cannabis, with a maximum of four plants per household. In the Netherlands, any home growing of cannabis is still formally illegal and can have very serious consequences including eviction. 

Why is it crucial to be legally able to grow your own cannabis?

The American reform organisation NORML explained this eloquently decades ago, in a legal report from the 1970’s:

“Establishing the right of marijuana users to grow their own marijuana should they choose to do so, is an essential ingredient of any consumer-oriented reform of the marijuana laws. In a nutshell, homegrown marijuana provides an important check on the economics of commercial distribution (legal or illegal) and gives the millions of marijuana smokers in the United States substantial leverage in dealing with those who sell marijuana for profit.”

This still holds true today, for Malta, for the Netherlands or any country. 

Like Uruguay, Canada, Luxembourg, Switzerland and many American states, Malta is taking cannabis out of the hands of criminals and is choosing intelligent regulation over failing and unjust prohibition.

This is not something to fear or protest, it is something to be proud of. 


Derrick Bergman is a Dutch journalist and photographer who has been writing and publishing about cannabis since the 1990’s. He is chairman of the VOC, the Union for the abolition of cannabis prohibition, a Dutch NGO advocating for legalisation of cannabis. 

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