Dutch pot program a downer for users

October 13, 2004

Maria Lokshin, Associated Press

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- There's a whiff of crisis in the air at the Dutch Ministry of Health: It's sitting on a pile of pot that it just can't sell.

The Netherlands rolled out a program last year that allows patients to buy prescription marijuana at any pharmacy. Some medical insurance policies cover at least part of the cost, but often not enough to offset the pharmacy price.

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 is 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 to research and develop cannabis for pharmaceutical use.

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

The government says packaging and distribution costs push up its prices, and acknowledges its program may be foundering. Of some 450 pounds in anticipated sales, only about 175 pounds have been sold, said Bas Kuik, spokesman for the Office of Medicinal Cannabis, an arm of the Dutch Ministry of Health.

The government sells two varieties ranging from about $10 to $12 a gram -- enough for up to four joints. Coffee shops sell it for as little as $5 a gram, with only the highest-quality weed fetching prices comparable to the government's.

Under the liberal Dutch approach dating to the 1970s, the law forbids privately growing and selling marijuana and has no tolerance for dealing in hard drugs, but refrains from prosecuting the sale of small amounts.

The medicinal program allows pharmacies to sell standardized, quality-controlled marijuana from authorized growers to people with chronic or terminal diseases such as multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, neuralgia, cancer and Tourette's syndrome.

The competition comes from hundreds of marijuana bars, thinly disguised as 'coffee shops' to maintain the fiction of legality. Though patronized mostly by recreational smokers and tourists, people in pain who find relief from cannabis are also customers, paying less than they would at a pharmacy.

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

At midday in the Dampkring, off one of Amsterdam's busiest shopping streets, dozens of mostly young people sit in a haze of smoke, sipping soft drinks, smoking prepackaged joints or rolling their own.

The menu, with 23 types of marijuana and 18 varieties of hashish, carries a 'fair smoke' assurance 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 insurance.

One of two legal marijuana growers for the government program is James Burton, an American who immigrated after spending a year in a U.S. prison for growing marijuana to fight glaucoma. He founded the Stichting Institute of Medical Marijuana in Rotterdam, and for more than a decade sold pot directly to as many as 1,500 patients. He estimates about 10,000 people in the Netherlands use it for medical reasons.

In 2001, he signed an exclusive contract to provide the government program with cannabis. But the 5-year agreement was terminated prematurely after he talked about it on Dutch television and was accused by the government of breaking a confidentiality clause.

'I finally had to come out publicly,' Burton said. 'The program's not working. They have less than 1,000 patients.'

He suggested that the conservative coalition, which replaced the more liberal government that created the program, was not promoting it.

'The whole country is leaning to the right,' he said. 'I think a year from now this program's gone.'

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