The poll is a cooperative effort. “It’s a survey of and by cannabis consumers,” said Maalsté, who has been researching the cannabis industry since the 1990s and has published three books and numerous articles on the subject. She and partner Michael Panhuysen devised the survey along with organizations such as the VOC (Union for the Abolition of Cannabis Prohibition), WeSmoke, the Mediwiet Foundation, medical cannabis social club Suver Nuver, and the patient-advocacy group PGMCG.
Organizers are promoting the survey via social media and though the so-called Grass Trip, a traveling team of brightly dressed workers that over four months will drop in on coffeeshops throughout the country.
“Most cannabis research focuses on health and safety. The researchers approach cannabis consumption as a problem, and this is reflected in their questions,” Maalsté said. “The Grass Poll has a different perspective and connects to the experience of cannabis consumers. That’s why, for example, we do not distinguish between recreational and medicinal use.”
The first results will be presented early next year at a meeting for entrepreneurs and the organizations involved in the campaign, Maalsté said, although the hope is for the results to eventually play a role in the ongoing debate about the so-called backdoor paradox, the fact that coffeeshops are allowed to sell cannabis under strict conditions but production or wholesale remain illegal.
“The voice of the consumer will have to play a decisive role in the debate.”Nicole Maalsté, Grass Poll
It’s an urgent moment in Dutch cannabis policy, as 2017 is an election year in the Netherlands. Voters will go to the polls on March 15, and the country’s current minister of justice, Ard van der Steur, told a meeting of his VVD party in September that cannabis legalization would be “the most important item” on the ballot.
Opposition party D66 recently managed to get a majority behind its proposal to regulate production for the country’s 600 cannabis coffeeshops. While the proposal would not legalize cannabis outright, it would extend the existing policy of tolerance to apply to the cultivation of coffeeshop cannabis. Growers would be subject to strict regulations.
The backdoor paradox has plagued the Dutch cannabis industry for years. “It is a problem in which many different ministries and parties are involved,” Maalsté explained. “They all look at the issue in a different way. In political-administrative terms, we call this ‘wicked problem.’ This means there’s no jointly supported definition of the problem, its causes, and consequences. To arrive at a solution, all these different parties will have to come together to better understand the different positions and interests involved.
“This hasn’t been done until now,” she added, “but it seems things are gradually moving in the right direction.”
Coffeeshops traditionally tend to shy away from joining local or national interest groups or associations—in part because of the backdoor paradox. “The coffeeshop industry is difficult to unite,” Maalsté said, “because the entrepreneurs still have one leg in the illegal market. When they unite, they run the risk of being labeled a criminal organization. In a regulated cannabis market, they could unite much easier.”
Only about 15 percent are members of such groups, but more and more coffeeshops are becoming politically active and joining coffeeshop unions. In June, an unprecedented 232 coffeeshops signed on to a letter sent to the Association of Dutch Municipalities (VNG), asking for a pragmatic, workable solution to the backdoor problem.
It’s crucial that the country devise a system that truly reflects Dutch cannabis culture, Maalsté said. “In the US, big players have taken over the cannabis market after regulation. In the Netherlands, proponents of regulation are considering cannabis production by the state. Both models insufficiently take the Dutch cannabis culture into account.
“With a 40-year history of tolerance policy,” she continued, “a model allowing for local, small-scale, organic growers seems more appropriate. The voice of the consumer will have to play a decisive role in the debate.”
An English version of the Grass Poll survey is available on the project’s website.