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DUTCH POLITICIANS FAVOUR POT ON FARMS
Government May Not Be Able To Halt Popular Plan
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - A broad coalition of political parties announced a plan Friday to regulate marijuana farming on the model of tobacco, in what may be the most significant development in Dutch drug policy in years.
Opponents in the government said the move would be tantamount to legalization. But the proponents, representing a large majority in parliament, have threatened a showdown if the government tries to block the proposal.
Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende and his Christian Democrat party oppose allowing cannabis cultivation because it would set the Netherlands another step apart from the rest of Europe.
"When making drug policy, you can't just base it on national considerations alone, you have to also think international relations," Balkenende said in a reaction to the plan at his weekly news briefing.
"This experiment would be at odds with Dutch law and there's a legal problem" internationally as well, he said.
But legislator Frans Weekers, whose conservative VVD party recently swung its support to the proposed program, said the current policy is "hypocritical and leading to increasing problems."
"There comes a moment when you say: 'Now we have to take the next step,'" Weekers said in a telephone interview.
"If this pilot program works and we can show to everyone that it's an improvement, then you have a good argument to take to foreign governments."
He added there was no support at all for criminalizing marijuana among either politicians or Dutch society.
After 30 years of tolerating marijuana, usage rates in the Netherlands are in the middle of international norms. Data from various governments compiled by Trimbos, the Netherlands' Institute for Health and Addiction, shows usage is higher in the Netherlands than in Scandinavia but lower than in the United States and Britain.
Under current Dutch policy, marijuana and hashish are illegal but police don 't fine smokers for possession of less than five grams or prosecute for possession of less than 30 grams. Authorities look the other way regarding the open sale of cannabis in designated "coffee shops."
But growers are subject to raids and prosecution, giving rise to a contradictory system where shop owners have no legal way to purchase their best-selling product.
Growers often operate from underground greenhouses in homes and garages. Critics said this leads to the theft of electricity in unsafe circumstances, causing fires and bringing criminality into residential neighbourhoods.
Under the test program, to be conducted near the southern city Maastricht, existing health and safety standards will apply to growers.
Coffee shops would be required to provide consumers with information about the health hazards of smoking and about the chemical content of the marijuana they buy.
Dutch mayors along the country's borders have lobbied hardest for the change, facing problems from drug tourists from Germany and Belgium who drive to the Netherlands to buy supplies.
Supporters said regulation of production would, like regulating tobacco, make smuggling large quantities across the border more difficult.
"It will be possible to trace where cannabis is grown and where it's sold," Weekers said.
It also could open the door to outright legalization and taxation of an industry with annual domestic sales estimated at the equivalent of more than $800 million Cdn.
But Balkenende said it wasn't clear whether regulation would be enough to dissuade drug tourists or dealers from buying and selling on the black market.
"You have to ask whether this experiment could solve these problems," he said.
The Justice Ministry has ordered an investigation into whether the plan would violate international law and spokesman Wibbe Alkema said the findings are expected within several days.
Weekers estimated the plan will be approved by two-thirds of the Dutch parliament, building consensus across the political spectrum, as happened before the adoption of other progressive Dutch policies, such as legalizing euthanasia and gay marriage.
The next step is a major debate on drug policy scheduled for later this month.
MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman
Newshawk: CMAP http://www.mapinc.org/cmap
Pubdate: Sat, 03 Dec 2005
Source: Chronicle Herald (CN NS)
Copyright: 2005 The Halifax Herald Limited
Author: Associated Press
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/pot.htm (Cannabis)
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/decrim.htm (Decrim/Legalization)