ANTWERP — The Belgian cannabis movement, a small but powerful force, is still recovering from the shock caused by the unexpected death of legalization advocate and long-time resident of the country, Joep Oomen, in March. Oomen was a pivotal figure in the broader European drug reform movement and founded Belgium’s first Cannabis Social Club (CSC). Members gathered at the 11th annual Cannabis Liberation Day in Antwerp last month and considered how Oomen’s legacy will inspire the European legalization movement going forward.
Cannabis Liberation Day, where cannabis can sometimes be smelled but is rarely ever seen, is organized by Belgium's Antwerp-based “Trekt Uw Plant,” the country’s first CSC. The name translates literally as “pull your plant” and figuratively means “make up your own plan.”
Compared to Spain, where the communal clubs are widespread, the movement in Belgium — one of the smallest countries in the European union — is tiny. There are now five registered CSC's across the nation. Trekt Uw Plant is the largest, with around 400 members. The club launched in 2006, when a government directive ended the prosecution of Belgians in possession of up to 3 grams of cannabis or one female plant.
These legal changes were all Joep Oomen needed to get busy. Fluent in Spanish, he linked Belgium and Spain, where clubs were already popular. And with that, Belgium’s era of Cannabis Social Clubs had begun.
Oomen, a native of the neighboring Netherlands, moved to Antwerp in the ‘90s and ran the office of ENCOD, the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies. He reasoned that if you're allowed to grow one plant, you could also have that plant cared for by someone else, outside your home.
All that was needed were name tags on every plant in the communal grow room.
Oomen and the members of Trekt Uw Plant went to court twice, but in 2010 the club’s organizers were finally acquitted. Since that last victory, the club has functioned without interference from authorities.
Club members gather once every two to three months at the ruilbeurs, or exchange market, where they receive the yield of their plants. They pay membership fees as well as costs for the care of the plants. This comes down to about €7 per gram, which is very cheap compared to both the black market and the licensed coffeeshops in neighboring Holland.
So far so good, but…
Trekt Uw Plant has generated lots of positive publicity, and more clubs are now trying to follow its example. One of them was Mambo Social Club, founded by Michel Degens, a Trekt Uw Plant member. He worked closely with Oomen, who didn't see other clubs as competition but as a sign of success for the non-commercial, transparent system that is a Cannabis Social Club. The pair tirelessly explained and promoted the model and its benefits: no criminal involvement, clean cannabis without pesticides, accurate product information, an enforceable age limit, direct contact between growers and consumers, and the creation of new, legitimate jobs.
Mambo Social Club got off to a flying start. Degens made the case for Cannabis Social Clubs on national TV and was soon flooded with so much interest, he had to create a waiting list for new members. But tragedy struck in December 2013, when police searched him as he was carrying the dried buds of 60 plants to the club, where just as many members were waiting. Police also searched his house and found 27 plants, all with name tags. A month after the bust, another caretaker of the plants was raided and all the plants were confiscated.
The Mambo trial and subsequent appeal ended in disaster. This past February, the club’s organizers were acquitted of “inciting and facilitating drug use” but convicted for possession, production, and sale of cannabis. The court denied that the right of possession for personal use can be extended to a communal growing space, as clubs had argued. After long discussions with members, lawyers, and others involved, Degens decided to suspend the operation of Mambo Social Club.
“We've suspended cultivation because we're legally obliged to do so,” he said at the Antwerp Cannabis Liberation Day. “We're now awaiting the next lawsuit, which will probably be decisive. Our members now have to resort to the black market — even the sick people.”
His message was clear. “It's time for the cannabis user to come out of the closet. It is crazy to just silently undergo the situation, and it will only keep the current system in place. People need to realize that they're making criminals of themselves if they stay in the closet.
“This madness must stop. People should not quietly accept being made into criminals for choosing the softest drug over one of the hardest, alcohol.”
Reflecting on the current atmosphere in the cannabis movement after the verdict and the passing of Joep Oomen, Degens said: “The biggest shock has been absorbed. It's beautiful to see how other people are now taking up the challenge and trying to fill a bit of the void that Joep has left behind. People take their responsibility [seriously], and Trekt Uw Plant has a competent team at the helm. The atmosphere is good, but we miss Joep and we all realize that we don't even reach to his ankles. It's impossible to replace him, but everyone is doing their utmost.”
Since Mambo and Trekt Uw Plant operate in exactly the same manner, the Mambo verdict could spell trouble for Belgium's oldest Cannabis Social Club. But Trekt Uw Plant is ready to go to court a third time in the event of a new raid or investigation. They have a firm belief in the CSC model, a decade of experience, a spotless track record, and a war chest to fund a legal team if needed.
But their most powerful weapons might be their solidarity and their dedication to the club and its founder.