Pharmacies in the Netherlands will stock cannabis from today. The Dutch are the first to permit cannabis to be legally dispensed to those with a doctor’s prescription, and other countries – including Britain, parts of the US, Australia and Canada, where plans for a similar system are at an advanced stage – will be watching the Dutch experience closely.
More than 2,000 pharmacies in the Netherlands are legally obliged from today to stock medical cannabis and dispense advice to users on the merits of brewing the mixture of dried parts of the hemp plant as a tea. They are also expected to provide instruction on how to become high by using it in combination with an inhaler.
Two strengths of cannabis, a stronger and a milder version, are to be available. Medical cannabis has been legal on a doctor’s prescription since March in the Netherlands, but pharmacists were given more time as they grappled with the intricacies of soft drugs culture.
More than 10,000 patients with illnesses from rheumatoid arthritis to terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis and Aids are expected initially to be entitled to medical marijuana. It will cost €40 to €50 (£27 to £34) for a five-gram bag, which is more than double that charged in Dutch “coffee shops“. The question of whether Dutch national health service (Ziekenfonds) patients can demand a refund remains in the balance.
In common with the 1,500 or so coffee shops that offer soft drugs, a maximum of five grams of cannabis will be allowed per transaction. But that is where comparisons end. The coffee shops operate in a grey area of the law, obtaining their supplies more often than not via shady criminal networks.
Medical cannabis is being distributed by a state-run bureau that has contracted two of the Netherlands’ biggest marijuana growers to produce tightly controlled plants of a constant quality and supply the drug on demand. The initial state order was for 200kg.
A spokesman for the Health Ministry said: “Medical cannabis is rigorously controlled and tested for toxins, the presence of pesticides, metal etc, and it has to be kept at a constant quality. It is no longer a drug but a medicine, so the actual product cannot be compared to what people would buy over the counter in a coffee shop.”
James Burton, director of the Institute of Medical Marijuana, one of the two official growers, said the medical cannabis was “a middle of the road” variety. It contains sufficient THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient) to relax patients and enhance the effects of existing medication.
Users are being warned by pharmacists to ensure they are not alone when using medical cannabis for the first time and to appreciate that they may become high or giddy. They are also warned not to take it with them on holidays abroad because of tough narcotics laws, or to ask foreign embassies in the Netherlands to provide a formal letter explaining that it is needed for medical reasons.
The main difference between the coffee shop cannabis and the state approved product is that the latter must never exceed the strength prescribed by the authorities.
Ger de Zwaan, who set up a cannabis mail order and home delivery service, accused the chemists of trying to rip off customers. More than 5,000 people receive regular supplies of cannabis cigarettes from him at a fraction of the prices to be charged by pharmacies. His oldest customer is 96.
“I send 60 joints to one Amsterdam nursing home every week. These are people who either cannot get out due to their debilitating illnesses or wouldn’t dare enter a coffee shop, and now the state has told me I have to stop because the pharmacies are taking over,” he said.