Police raid dampens Cannabis Cup

For smokers, the safe haven of the Netherlands is less so

Dec 7, 2011 at 12:00 am

Just when you think you know what you're talking about, events sometimes take a sharp, unanticipated turn and one ends up with a bad case of foot-in-the-mouth disease.

My last column from Amsterdam trumpeting the joys of the Cannabis Cup, Dutch tolerance of the cannabis culture, and the growth of the semi-licit industry that services it is a case in point.

The sad fact is that this year's High Times Cannabis Cup was raided on the third day of the exposition by a massive force of more than 100 Amsterdam police officers who shut down the venue and turned all the attendees out in the cold. No attendees were arrested, and the cops were described by one observer as "friendly and polite."

But in a chilling twist of long-established procedure, the police demanded that everyone surrender their personal stashes before leaving the premises, although several High Times staffers reported that people were allowed to smoke up rather than turn their weed over to the coppers, which made for a somewhat surreal scene.

One observer, Dana Larsen, director of the Vancouver Cannabis Dispensary Society, messaged from the site that a "police officer told me they saw some booths giving out weed and breaking other rules, so now the event is shut down [and] everyone has to leave except for exhibitors."

High Times spokesman David Holland said the raid "started over a misunderstanding about a permit application filed by the venue to host the event." Once matters were straightened out, the Cannabis Cup formally concluded as usual on the next night — American Thanksgiving — with the annual awards ceremony and concert at the Melkweg.

Struggling to comprehend exactly what had provoked the police raid, unprecedented in the 24-year history of the flamboyant festivities, I spoke with longtime Cannabis Cup organizer Steve Hager. It seems that this year's exhibition hall, Borchland, a new sports facility on the outskirts of town, accepted the High Times event without understanding it is an unabashed cannabis exposition.

Hager couldn't say who had alerted the authorities, but some suspect it was the proprietor himself who was evidently freaked out by the massive consumption of cannabis on his premises and, fearful of being cited for smoking violations and other possible improprieties, called in the police to shut the thing down.

In any case, Hager felt that the immediate problem stemmed from the rental of a new venue in a part of town outside the accustomed orbit of the event's organizers and in a jurisdiction administered by a different bureau of the police department than the one the organizers had traditionally dealt with.

There was some speculation that the authorities in this part of town had taken offense at what they perceived to be a slight and a serious show of disrespect on the part of the High Times organizers in their failure to approach the local licensing body and properly negotiate the terms of their occupancy.

But problems with the venue and the licensing process aside, the deployment of a small army of police officers in a dramatic and entirely disproportionate display of official hostility toward the cannabis culture and its annual self-celebration signals a frightening turn for the worse and arguably the onset of Holland's entry at this late date into the international ranks of the War on Drugs.

While the rest of the Western world is finally beginning to turn away from the totally unnecessary, socially destructive and spectacularly ineffective War on Drugs mentality that's prevailed for the past 50 years, the Netherlands — home of what is arguably the most intelligent and socially effective drug-use policy yet established anywhere — is throwing rationality out the window and mounting an increasingly idiotic crusade against the cannabis culture and the homegrown industry that supports it. 

The present government of the Netherlands and the municipal authorities in Amsterdam are now intensifying their quixotic political campaign against the marijuana culture and the public practice of vice in general despite the absence of any indication of actual social harm from these quarters and a shocking disregard for their positive impact on the local and national economy.

It's no secret that drug and sex tourism is the basis of Amsterdam's attraction to travelers from all over America and Europe. But for some reason, probably having to do with some kind of religious zealotry, the current political caretakers of public morality in Holland have set themselves against the venerable practice of public vice in a whole new way.

The sex trade is being reduced by placing new limits on the number of "red window" cribs allowed in the Red Light District, and drug tourism has sort of assumed the status of Public Enemy No. 1, with measure after repressive measure proposed for passage in Parliament.

Right in the middle of the table at the moment is the government's proposal to bar tourists from the coffee shops of Holland, limiting entrance and cannabis purchases to Dutch nationals. Everyone I've talked to in the local cannabis industry assures me that there is no chance that the measure will pass and even less that, if passed, it could be enforced.

But I'm from America, and I know what they can do when they set their minds to it. Here the War on Drugs is in the center of our lives as marijuana smokers, and the police at our door or in our automobiles is an ever-present threat. There's neither rhyme nor reason to it — it's just the way it is and has been for an awful long time.

The horde of coppers descending on the Cannabis Cup exposition hall last month seemed to me remarkably congruent with the government's aggressive policy against drug tourism — a way of letting American sojourners know that they are no longer welcome in Viper Central.

The fact is that Amsterdam and the Netherlands have long enjoyed a period of official tolerance for recreational drug use that dates back to the early 1970s, when the Dutch government decided to adopt the concept of "harm reduction" as the basis of its response to the swelling number of cannabis users. 

Instead of demonizing marijuana smokers as criminal dope fiends and throwing the book at them as was — and is — the prevalent mode imposed by official drug policy makers almost everywhere else, the Dutch government concluded that recreational smoking was a relatively harmless social activity that demanded little governmental attention. The government decided to allow certain coffee shops and cafés to sell to smokers in recreational amounts for consumption on the premises or off.

This system has worked extremely well for almost 40 years now, but this new twist on nationalism by the current Dutch authorities is definitely bad news for people like ourselves — and even for the future of the Cannabis Cup and the Dutch cannabis industry as a whole.

I wish I could tell you what's about to happen in Holland, but I can only stand by with bated breath and observe. As a medical marijuana patient in Michigan and in the Netherlands, I'm confident that my own smoking needs will be met in the future as they are today, but as one who hopes for the best for humanity in all its infinite permutations, I fear for the future of this haven of freedom and tolerance like never before.