How the Dutch Spread Cannabis Across the WorldDavid BienenstockAugust 12, 2019
Throughout a long dark age of near total global oppression, the mere existence of Amsterdam’s coffeeshops provided reformers all over the world with an irreplaceable living model to point to when arguing for an alternative to prohibition.
For anyone who simply longed to get high in peace, those wonderful shops sent out a green beacon of hope, even if you were never fortunate enough to actually visit one in person.
And that’s not the only significant way the Netherlands changed the world of cannabis.
In the 1970s, Dutch seed banks began producing and distributing untold millions of high quality cannabis seeds. As a result, the Netherlands became the ultimate cannabis melting pot, a literal breeding ground where strains from Afghanistan and Morocco were crossed with strains from Thailand and Mexico, with the best of these hybrids going on to become international sensations once their seeds reached underground growers operating in every corner of the globe.
In short, it’s the story of how kind bud became a thing.
But why the Netherlands? What made it the one country to tolerate cannabis when nobody else would? And how did that tolerance forever change the way the rest of us grow, sell, and consume this plant?
The short answer is that it all started with a provocation.
A Rather Sizable Loophole
Starting in 1964, the Dutch Provo movement (short for “provocateurs”) used a mix of street performances, subversive art, and impromptu political demonstrations to take on a system run by “despicable plastic people,” and push for a series of progressive reforms that included immediate cannabis legalization.
To prove that the authorities were totally ignorant regarding cannabis and thus the total illegitimacy of prohibition against it, the Provos created “Marihuettegame,” which consisted of sending police on a series of wild goose chases by calling in anonymous tips on cannabis dealers and hashish parties that didn’t exist. The Provos also revelled in baiting the (unarmed) police into arresting them for something that looked like cannabis but was actually another herb.
Smoking hashish became a ritual at weekly Provos happenings, and the push for legalization became a central tenet of the movement’s political demands. Eventually, the Provos’ ongoing clashes with the law led to the dismissal of Amsterdam’s authoritarian police chief in 1966 and the resignation of the mayor in 1967.
When the movement officially disbanded in 1967, many Provos moved full-time into cannabis activism, including Robert Jasper Grootveld and Kornelis “Kees” Hoekert, who together founded the Lowlands Weed Company. Having discovered a rather sizable loophole in Dutch law—which banned only the “dried tops” of the cannabis plant—they began openly selling small plants and seeds from a garishly painted houseboat floating in one of central Amsterdam’s many picturesque canals.
The Lowlands Weed Company
Patrons would marvel at the thousands of small cannabis plants in peat moss pots that covered every inch of the boat’s decks (actually low-grade hemp grown from pigeon seed bought at a pet store), before being ushered below deck where a bohemian teahouse greeted them with the pungent aroma of a floating hashish-fueled nautical hotbox.
As Hoekert explained to High Times in 2008:
Cannabis didn’t exist at the time—it was all hashish. The hashish back then came from Morocco or Afghanistan. Marijuana was not brought into Holland because it was too bulky—too difficult to smuggle. So the only thing you could get in those days was either hashish or what they called ‘lowland weed’ [i.e. hemp] which is no good to smoke…. We thought: Why smoke hashish when we can grow the best weed here in Amsterdam?
To help spread the word, the Lowlands Weed Company’s proprietors started planting seeds everywhere possible in the city, from the Amsterdam Forest to right outside the airport, and even handed out free seeds to random motorists. Naturally, the two old Provos behind these new Marihuettegames hoped the police would arrest them and cause an even bigger media sensation, but the authorities refused to take the bait.
The Dutch Government Loosens Up
In fact, by 1969, the Dutch authorities had issued enforcement guidelines prioritizing police to focus on hard drugs and not enforce laws against cannabis possession. Then in 1972, a Dutch student named Wernard Bruining and some friends exerted squatter’s rights over an abandoned bakery and transformed it into Mellow Yellow, a teahouse on a small side street that soon drew crowds for its steady supply of cannabis, which could be purchased from an employee posed as a customer.
Meanwhile, the Netherland’s government undertook a comprehensive review of its drug laws in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s.
Released around the same time as similar reports from the Shafer Commission in the United States and the Le Dain Commission in Canada, the Dutch study reached the same conclusion: Cannabis should be decriminalized and destigmatized. Unlike the US and Canada, the federal government in the Netherlands actually followed through and implemented those policies.
And that’s when the Dutch seed banks really took off.
From Skunkman to Schoenmakers to Sensi
The Netherlands’ early cannabis industry was a shadowy patchwork world of activists, outlaws, and true believers. People came from all around the world to take part, occasionally arriving one step ahead of the law, and often bringing the best of their own local genetics. Some of the earliest seed banks formed as partnerships between these cannabis exiles and local entrepreneurs.
Those first-generation seed merchants didn’t just proliferate classic strains, they also developed new varieties. Soon Neterweed—as the Dutch called their domestically grown cannabis—made Amsterdam’s coffeeshops a dream destination for cannabis enthusiasts of every nation. Many were all-too-delighted to discover they could buy seeds of their favorite strains and smuggle them home as a prized souvenir.
Holland was a center of plant breeding and flower sales since the tulip craze of the 1600s, and the gray market cannabis industry eventually began producing seeds in mass quantities and sending them to customers worldwide.
Because much of this activity remained technically against the law in the Netherlands, particularly when it came to shipping overseas, the true history of these seed banks and the people behind them is often obscured by secrecy, and much of what has been recorded is in dispute.
But let’s at least try to honor the true pioneers.
Sam the Skunkman
According to Danny Danko, author of Cannabis: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Marijuana, and the brains behind High Times magazine’s annual Seed Bank Hall of Fame inductions, the Provos kick-started Amsterdam’s seed scene by selling “beans” over-the-counter at their Afrikaanse Druk Store in the late 1960s.
But Danko credits David “Sam the Skunkman” Watson, an American ex-pat, with setting up the country’s first proper cannabis seed bank. The Skunkman also earned a spot in Leafly’s list of five cannabis breeders who changed the game:
Watson’s journey began in Santa Cruz, California, in the 1970s, where he was linked to two of the earliest cannabis breeding outfits to ever gain notoriety—the Haze Brothers and Sacred Seed Collective.
A month after he was reportedly arrested on cannabis charges in California, Watson landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, allegedly with a box of 250,000 seeds that included Skunk #1, Original Haze, and Afghani #1, and immediately began meeting with emissaries from Amsterdam’s burgeoning cannabis scene.
Along with Robert Colonel Clarke (Author of Hashish! and Marijuana Botany), he would go on to form Hortapharm, a company dedicated to collecting cannabis seeds from around the world, both to create a stable genetic library and to breed new hybrids with desirable traits. By the late 1990s, they were doing business with Dr. Geoffrey Guy, founder and chairman of GW Pharmaceuticals, which is now licensed by the British government to cultivate cannabis for use in making “whole-plant extracts” with specific ratios of THC and CBD for use as prescription medicines.
Not long after Skunkman came Nevil Schoenmakers, who was born in Australia to Dutch parents and moved to the Netherlands in 1976, largely to take part in the city’s cannabis revolution.
By the mid-1980s, he’d founded the Seed Bank of Holland, which, according to Leafly, “Collected famous West Coast strains from Washington, Oregon, and California, including Skunk #1, Early Girl, and Northern Lights.” It was also among the first to advertise seeds direct to the public, including legendary first-generation hybrids like Neville’s Haze, Northern Lights Haze, Super Silver Haze, and Nevil’s Skunk.
Eventually Schoenmakers sold his seed bank to Sensi Seeds, and then was instrumental in forming Green House Seeds with Arjan Roskam before quitting the business and eventually returning to Australia, where he passed away earlier this year.
Sensi Seeds, formed in 1985 by a Netherlands native named Ben Dronkers, and best known for popularizing a strain named after legendary cannabis activist Jack Herer, would then become the industry’s standard-bearer, particularly in the 1990s, as orders continued to pour into a small country in Northern Europe that has played an outsized role in the global cannabis resistance.
Today, that whole outlaw era might seem like a relic of the past, but some of the finest cannabis genetics on Earth can still be sourced via the remaining old school Dutch seed banks and the many younger upstarts who joined their ranks along the way.