Dutch government’s medical marijuana program elbowed out by common coffee shops

By Maria Lokshin , Associated Press

AMSTERDAM—There’s a whiff of crisis in the air at the Dutch Health Ministry: It has a mountain of marijuana on its hands that it just can’t sell.

The Netherlands rolled out a program last year that allows people with medical needs to buy prescription marijuana at any pharmacy, and get part of the money back from medical insurance.

But in a country where any adult can walk into a “coffee shop” and smoke a joint for much less than the government price, many say the experiment at regulating medical marijuana has been a bust.

“I think it’s a shame that they can’t deliver a cannabis product a little bit cheaper than the coffee shops,” said David Watson, head of Hortapharm, an Amsterdam-based company licensed for research and development of cannabis for pharmaceutical use.

“Why is it that a legal commodity is more expensive than an illegal commodity?”

Cas de Bruijn, 43, sliced off four fingers and part of his thumb in an industrial accident 27 years ago, and to this day feels a “phantom pain” in those missing fingers that eases when he smokes pot.

For him, the problem with the government’s medical marijuana program isn’t just cost but the fact it doesn’t provide him with the kind of weed he needs – a variety high in cannabidiol, or CBD, a muscle relaxant.

“What is now in the pharmacy is very low in CBD,” de Bruijn said. “I didn’t like it at all.”

Whatever the cause, even the government acknowledges its program may be foundering.

“We are not meeting our targets,” said Bas Kuik, spokesman for the Office of Medicinal Cannabis, an arm of the Dutch Ministry of Health. Of the 200 kilograms in anticipated sales, only 80 kilograms were sold since the project was launched last year, he said.

The program allows pharmacies to sell standardized marijuana from authorized growers that have undergone quality control. It is aimed at chronic or terminal diseases such as multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, neuralgia, cancer and Tourette’s syndrome.

It is illegal to privately grow and sell marijuana in the Netherlands. But in the 1970s authorities decided not to prosecute the sale of small amounts, bringing the soft-drug industry above ground where it could more easily be controlled. There is no similar tolerance for dealers in hard drugs, like cocaine or heroin.

Hundreds of marijuana bars, thinly disguised as “coffee shops” to maintain the fiction of legality, sprang up in the cities and large towns. Though patronized mostly by recreational smokers and tourists, people in pain who find relief from cannabis are also customers.

Erik Bosman, manager of the Dampkring coffee shop, says many of his regulars are medical patients, and he even used to offer discounts for people with doctors’ prescriptions.

The Dampkring, just off one of Amsterdam’s busiest shopping streets, has a comfortable amber glow that filters through a thin haze of pungent smoke.

Even at midday, dozens of mostly young people sit at the long dark wood bar sipping soft drinks or beer as they roll their cigarettes or smoke pre-packaged joints. The coffee shop was the set for a scene shot earlier this year of Ocean’s Twelve, and pictures of George Clooney and Brad Pitt with the staff hang on the wall.

The menu, with 23 types of marijuana and 18 varieties of hashish, carries a “fair smoke” reassurance that the cannabis is organically grown.

But many coffee shops are dingy, unappealing hangouts that hardly inspire a feeling of pharmaceutical confidence, and some seriously ill people will pay more for guaranteed quality, especially if it’s covered by their insurance.

The government sells two varieties ranging from 8 and Ç9.50 (US$9.80-$11.70) a gram. Coffee shops sell marijuana as low as 4 (US$4.90) a gram, with only the highest quality weed ringing up prices comparable to the government’s.

One of two legal marijuana growers for the government program is James Burton, a US expatriate in Rotterdam, who immigrated after spending a year in prison in the United States for growing marijuana to fight glaucoma.

The high cost of the Dutch government’s program may have less to do with pot than with packaging. The government says about 60 percent of the cost is related to providing and distributing the marijuana to pharmacies, and the rest is for development, packing and tax.

Watson said coffee-shop marijuana is always a gamble because there is a small but real chance customers could be smoking pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, mould or fungi—all of which can be detrimental for someone with a weakened immune system.

Burton founded the Stichting Institute of Medical Marijuana, and for more than a decade he sold marijuana directly to as many as 1,500 patients. He estimates about 10,000 people in the Netherlands use marijuana for medical reasons.

In 2001 he signed an exclusive contract with the government to provide the cannabis for its program. But the five-year agreement was terminated prematurely after he went on Dutch television talking about the program that he believes is “doomed to fail.”

The government accused him of breaking a confidentiality clause.

“I finally had to come out publicly,” he told The Associated Press. “The program’s not working. They have less than 1,000 patients.” Burton charged that the government “is not dedicated to making sure the program works.”

“Nobody’s promoting it. It’s not a proactive campaign,” he said.

Politics may be to blame, Burton believes, since a conservative coalition has replaced the more liberal government that created the medicinal marijuana program. “The whole country is leaning to the right,” he said. “I think a year from now this program’s gone.”

Kuik, the government official, confirmed the program is up for review early next year.

For de Bruijn, coffee shops and pharmacies are not options. His insurance company will not reimburse him for coffee shop marijuana, and has placed a $560 annual cap on payments—far less than he would spend in a pharmacy.

Instead, de Bruijn buys his marijuana from an organization similar to Burton’s, where it is cheap enough to be covered by his insurance.

But he’s far from satisfied.

“I feel I’m forced to buy there, and I really think they stink,” he said. “It’s not good medical marijuana.”

Source: www.manilatimes.net October 14 2004

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