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A Look Inside Amsterdam’s Cannabis Liberation Day 2018

July 25, 2018

“You get raided a hundred times, a thousand times. All this hassle, all this shit, normal people would,” the question began before reaching its crux, which asked: “Why did you not give up?”

“You can only get into it when you go with your heart in it.”

The inquirer was Derrick Bergman, chair and founder of the Dutch Union for the Abolition of Cannabis Prohibition (or the VOC for short). His interviewers were The Bulldog coffeeshop impresario Henk de Vries, and Ben Dronkers, the visionary behind Sensi Seeds. Sharing a stage—and a joint—at Cannabis University, the men spoke for their allotted 25 minutes about the past 50 years, during which the Dutch government has turned a blind eye to cannabis use and vending yet punished its commercial cultivation.

This interview session was part of an eight-hour program of master classes and panels that ran alongside the festivities of Cannabis Liberation Day, which took place on June 17th in Amsterdam’s Flevopark.

It was momentous. Nowadays, De Vries rarely gives interviews. Dronkers lives in Malaysia, though was in town after having opened We Are Mary Jane: Women of Cannabis, a new exhibition at the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum (which he also established in 1985).

Cannabis Activists Out in Force

Bergman, a former contributor to Leafly, was an ideal interviewer: relaxed yet keeping the conversation on track—even if it meant clipping answers from the OGs of the Netherlands’ cannabis industry. Moreover, this was the last Cannabis Liberation Day ever planned by the VOC, who was in charge of the “protestival” since its start in 2009. This year’s event, locally called Cannabis Bevrijdingsdag, was the largest ever. According to organizers, 10,000 to 15,000 people were estimated to be in attendance.

Derrick Bergman, founder of the VOC (Karina Hof/Leafly)

Between captivatingly diverse live music acts and DJs, cannabis industry bigwigs from around the globe gave five-minute speeches on the main stage. They included Doug Fine, Ed Rosenthal, Dana Larsen, The Dagga Couple, Henk de Vries, and Doede de Jong—all of whom also spoke in more intimate sessions at Cannabis University.

Despite the crowds and Flevopark’s lake-surrounding sprawl, Leafly had the chance to doorstep (fieldstep, really) some notable participants. Amidst all the vibrancy, VOC co-founder and activist Darpan van Kuik still stood out in his iconic pot-leaf suit, which he explained a friend had given him apropos of his nickname, “The Green Ambassador.”

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“I started smoking 45 years ago,” replied Van Kuik, when asked if he thought the Netherlands was any closer to liberation. “At that time, I said, ‘In five years it will be legal.’ So in ’76, we got the tolerance policy of the Netherlands, and now I’m still saying, ‘In five years it will be legal.’”

Following his session at Cannabis University, revolutionary horticulturalist Ed Rosenthal took a question from Leafly about what advice he, an American witnessing legalization happening state by state, would give the Netherlands. “DIY,” he stated. “Overgrow the government. Make it so they have absolutely no control over it and let them bust people. I don’t want people to be busted, but I’m not afraid of people being busted because it brings out the stupidity of it, and you get a few people who will fight it.”

“Politicians have no shame, so you have to scare them,” Rosenthal added.

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In a festival area for the organizer’s partners, the UK Cannabis Social Clubs gave demonstrations on dabbing, which remains pretty rare in the Netherlands. Seed producer Amsterdam Genetics played host in the vape lounge, offering free Volcano-inflated balloons and edibles (specifically: fondant-encased tier cakes, macarons, and petits fours of wedding-reception grade elegance).

At the hemp market, where some 60 companies sold their colorful wares, the OG Krunch stand was a hit; the five-gram baggies of cannabis-free chocolate, available in six flavors each mimicking an actual strain, looked uncannily like nuggets of weed. Another alluring comestible was Maximal Factory’s hemp soft serve ice cream, delicately topped with CBD drops, roasted hemp seeds, and muscovado sugar.

“The world has really changed, and we believe legalization of cannabis has become inevitable here in the Netherlands.”

Totally new to the festival this year was the Cannabis Olympics, featuring games, such as the stoned obstacle course. Athleticism was incentivized with a winning trip to Barcelona awarded to the gold medalist. At the nearby NGO market, ENCOD, the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies, got visitors thinking about continent-wide reforms, including those foreseen in their longest-running Freedom to Farm campaign.

Even city-level issues were given space; on hand was CIA, which stands for Cannabis Intelligence Amsterdam, a program developed by addiction support institute Jellinek to educate youth about substance use through mentoring by relatable community members.

Amidst the festival’s multidimensional celebrations of the multidimensional plant, there was a timely topic of conversation: the Experiment gesloten coffeeshopketen, translated to the “closed coffeeshop chain experiment.” This is a proposal by the current government coalition, formed after elections in March 2017, to see if over a four-year period, a fully legal cannabis grow-stock-and-sell system can be implemented on Dutch soil and have positive effects on society.

Legal Roadblocks and the Netherland’s Current Cannabis Base

This Cannabis Liberation Day, the Netherlands was 72 hours away from learning the findings of an eight-person committee tasked with assessing the government’s proposal and advising on its implementation.

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``We want to legalize. We want this plant to be a plant for all humankind, for all its purposes.``
The committee is composed of chair André Knottnerus, a professor of family medicine at Maastricht University, five other academics, a former mayor, and a former attorney general. Their June 20th report, comprising 71 pages, reflected what appeared to be rigorous research and input (including detailed analysis from the Trimbos Institute, the Netherlands’ national mental health and addiction organization, whose researchers regularly survey and test locally available cannabis strains). Key recommendations in the report, which listed 43 literature citations and 80 consultees, were to broaden the trial to more municipalities, offer a variety of strains in weed and hash, leave THC levels uncapped, and reconsider conclusion of the experiment—especially if successful.

By July 6th, the concerned ministers publicized their reaction. They stated, in sum, that the government would stay committed to six to ten municipalities, leaving it to the next cabinet to handle any eventual conclusion. They will, additionally, with advice from another anticipated Knottnerus committee report, pick up refinement of the trial’s implementation in the fall following their summer recess.

“Too little, too late,” said Bergman on behalf of the VOC. “In our view, the experiment started in 1976, when the fundamental difference between soft and hard drugs was introduced in our drug law. The government should have regulated the production of cannabis decades ago.”

Feedback from CannaWijzer was more optimistic. “Fortunately, the government took on a great deal of the [Knottnerus committee’s] advice,” organization chair Dimitri Breeuwer told Leafly via email. However, not only should more than ten municipalities be included, Breeuwer emphasized, but a consumer panel should be involved in the monitoring process and more measures must be taken to prevent new rules from potentially ruining homegrowers.

That this was the last Cannabis Liberation Day to be held by the VOC was a disappointment to longtime participants and newcomers alike. Yet the decision seemed strategically sound as Bergman explained it.

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“We’ve spent over ten months preparing for this final edition, which means there’s less time, energy and money for our other activities, such as lobbying politicians, informing media, running campaigns,” Bergman wrote in an email a few weeks after the festival. “Compared to the situation when we started in 2009, the world has really changed, and we believe legalization of cannabis has become inevitable here in the Netherlands. We feel our priority should now be to make sure that regulation of cannabis will not turn into ‘prohibition 2.0.’ This means we will focus on influencing policy makers, politicians, and journalists.”

Looking Ahead to Legalization and Societal Acceptance

Back at Cannabis University 2018, much of what De Vries, Dronkers, and Bergman discussed dovetailed with the reality outside Flevopark: cannabis use and its surrounding legislation has evolved in the Netherlands, though the road to legalization has been long and may be getting more circuitous.

“We knew there was nothing wrong with it; on the contrary, there was something good.”

Though one hails from Rotterdam and the other from rivaling Amsterdam, Dronkers and De Vries revealed remarkably similar backgrounds. Just shy of 70, both got involved with dealing “grass” through proximity to the “African weed,” as De Vries termed it, that arrived on ships in their respective cities’ ports. Each waltzed into readymade networks through their fathers’ business dealings. Dronkers’ dad sold secondhand goods—schlepping around used fridges was a convenient way to transport illicit substances. By 1984, Dronkers had opened Rotterdam’s first coffeeshop, Sensi Smile.

(Karina Hof/Leafly)

De Vries’ dad had a sex shop, which became The Bulldog’s flagship location once De Vries decided selling porn was, in a word, “shit” (reportedly throwing the collection of videos and printed matter in a canal) and transformed the place. Its vibe was modeled after an old Dutch koffiehuis, where people were expected to relax, bitch about social and political grievances, and consume whatever they desired.

A characteristically Dutch knack for commerce and entrepreneurialism made them savvy and solvent. But being broadminded free spirits kept Dronkers and De Vries unwavering in their vision of a green society. When both men described countless raids and arrests and Bergman asked why they still bothered, they were matter-of-fact.

“Well, because you believe in what you do. And we knew there was nothing wrong with it; on the contrary, there was something good. We couldn’t give up,” responded Dronkers. “We want to legalize. We want this plant to be a plant for all humankind, for all its purposes.”

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“You only can get into it when you go with your heart in it,” said De Vries of the trade. He had also recounted what he would say to patrons who got arrested. “They can only hold you a half an hour. And if you come back, I will be waiting for you with your bag,” De Vries recalled saying. “Don’t be nervous and don’t be afraid. I will be waiting for you.”

The words themselves are idiosyncratic to the Netherlands, given the relative softness of the police here, but the message—one of compassion, pragmatism, and patience—could imaginably be extended to today’s cannabis liberation-seekers everywhere.

Lead image by levers2007/iStock

Flood image Karina Hof/Leafly

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Karina Hof

Karina Hof is a freelance journalist based in Amsterdam. She writes and edits content about culture and coffee.

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