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Medical Cannabis in Netherlands

Aside from its reputation as the 'recreational pot' capital of the world, Amsterdam is an important center for medical marijuana tech
A worker tends to cannabis plants at the Tikun Olam cannabis growing facility near Safed (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
A worker tends to cannabis plants at the Tikun Olam cannabis growing facility near Safed (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

Last year around this time, I was in Amsterdam. I had taken a trip with my old friend, Jason, who had become ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and was in search of cannabis to help alleviate some of his symptoms. In hindsight, our cannabis-finding mission turned out to be the start of an ongoing journey, on which we’re still traveling today. In fact, this week, we returned to Amsterdam as part of the next phase of our project to explore a more multifaceted perspective of the cannabis industry.

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It was during the initial trip that we learned about the different cannabis strains available in the Netherlands. We studied different types, collected information, and became well-versed in all things cannabis. The more we learned, the more we discovered the innumerable ways in which this plant could be used to help those suffering from any number of medical conditions.

In the year since our inaugural trip, we’ve scouted the United States, the Netherlands, Africa and Canada for amazing innovations in the cannabis space. And what we’ve found has been eye opening:

This extremely promising industry has had its hands tied for so long, quashing innovation and even achieving the exact opposite of the intended regulations.

Let me explain…

Israel-Medical-Marijuana

The Netherlands and Cannabis Historically

The Netherlands decriminalized cannabis almost 40 years ago, and while this gave the Dutch a new, enormously lucrative tourist trade, the system itself was not fully regulated. Although it allowed the sale of weed to patrons at coffee shops, the government did not regulate who could grow and distribute through these same coffee shops. Legally, coffee shops are allowed to hold 500 grams of product at any one time, but typically, a coffee shop would go through a few kilograms of marijuana a day — which leaves only the possibility that runners are constantly replenishing the stock.

Some of the extractions and manipulations of the plant also remained illegal, and as a result, cannabis testing was never instituted in the Netherlands. What resulted was a market driven by marijuana with high levels of THC, sporting fabulous names like Strawberry Haze and White Widow, which resulted in very little other than millions of tourist dollars. Because the growing, processing, and delivery of weed in The Netherlands remained illegal, it effectively drove these industries underground to be run by various criminal elements. Because the coffee shop cannabis culture flourished, growers had incentive to successfully breed plants high in THC, which provided a more intense high, but eventually bred out all the beneficial cannabis qualities (including the CBD and other cannabinoids that have therapeutic value).

This resulted in a preponderance of marijuana high in THC levels whose sole purpose is a powerful recreational high, with very little to no therapeutic value. Such cannabis was left unregulated and grown through illegitimate avenues, with no quality control in place, and no documentation of pesticides or additives or other potentially toxic ingredients used in the cultivation. On our most recent trip to the Netherlands, we wondered aloud…where is the innovation? The oversight?

The opportunity to tap the potential is enormous.

Medical Cannabis in NL

The Netherlands’ medical cannabis framework, on the other hand, is quite well-developed. Doctors are legally able to prescribe cannabis, which is dispensed as any other drug through the pharmacies. The lone grow farm that supplies this medical cannabis network upholds the most rigid standards demanded by the Office of Medical Cannabis (part of the Ministry of Health, Wellness and Sport). On our recent excursion, this grower gave us a tour of his top secret facility. We were schooled on the stringent protocols that must be followed in order to produce a sustainably standardized product that both patients and doctors can trust.

The medical cannabis structure in the Netherlands is an excellent example of how the various components of the industry work together. In this system, the doctors, the patients, and the pharmacists work symbiotically — relating to marijuana as they would to any other medication. They have eliminated the fashionable, hipster cannabis names, and have standardized the quantity of THC and CBD in the five approved strains. The brilliance of this cannot be overstated, as it removes the confusing noise from the equation.

However, even given the extraordinary efficacy of their medical marijuana program, why then are there only 2000 patients utilizing the system? Can it be chalked up to politics? To poor dissemination of educational material? To a lack of awareness?

We came to realize that all three contribute to the low numbers of patients in the system. The Office of Medical Cannabis has a mandate to keep a very low profile. The grower’s facility is top secret, physician and patient education programs are not funded, and there seems to be no public awareness of the program’s existence. And here’s the kicker: doctors tend to tell patients to fill their cannabis needs by visiting the coffee shops! But as we discovered earlier, the quality is so poor that the patient doesn’t get as much therapeutic effecas they need and disregards cannabis as an effective, ongoing treatment.

We know that no system is perfect; it’s a constant dynamic environment in which we are all still learning. I’m hopeful that my experience with the Israeli medical cannabis model could make an impact in improving the status quo of the Dutch framework.

And so our journey continues.

Saul Kaye is CEO of CannaTech – Acclerating Cannabis Innovation

About the Author
Saul qualified in Australia and has been practicing community pharmacy in Israel for more than fifteen years. Saul came to Israel from Perth, Australia, 18 years ago, is married with four children, and lives in Maskeret Batya.
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