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Holland’s high life under threat

Questions are being asked about the viability of Holland's liberal drug laws.

In Amsterdam in November last year, hundreds of people gathered at a warehouse in the north-east of the city under a fug of cannabis smoke. They were there for the 25th annual Cannabis Cup – part “tasting” competition, part trade show – organised by High Times magazine as the world’s premier event celebrating all things cannabis.

Young men stood around arguing about crop yields and comparing notes on skunk finishes and the terroir of imported hashish. Celebrity cannabis farmers gave Gardeners’ Question Time-style presentations and announced new strains they had developed.

The event took place against a backdrop of increasing political scrutiny. The security, though friendly, was tight. Signs at the entrance warned attendees: “Possession of cannabis above five grammes per person is not legal under Dutch law.”

“We were worried we might not be able to host it this year,” David Bienenstock, an editor at High Times, told me. “A few months ago, it was really unclear what was going to happen. It’s still a bit uncertain.”

As the US makes decisive moves towards legalisation, decriminalising cannabis for personal use in Colorado and Washington, and while a cross-party select committee has called for a royal commission on drug policy in the UK, Holland is questioning the gedoogbeleid, or tolerance, of soft drugs that has been its policy for the past 36 years.

In 2011, the centre-right Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD) majority government introduced a “weed pass” scheme in three southern provinces, forcing Dutch users to register with their local coffee shop and preventing foreign nationals from buying cannabis.

The VVD planned to roll out the weed pass nationally in January but its proposal ran into resistance. In Maastricht, one of the cities where the legislation was introduced, protests forced the mayor to backtrack. For most Dutch politicians, it’s a matter of pragmatism. The mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, argued that if the weed pass was rolled out nationally, “The 1.5 million tourists will not say, ‘Then no more marijuana.’ They will swarm all over the city looking for drugs. This would lead to more robberies, quarrels about fake drugs and no control of the quality of drugs on the market.”

The political parties remain conflicted over the future of the coffee shops, with those on the left defending the status quo and those on the right favouring more regulation. In November, the government announced that weed-pass legislation would become a local issue. It is anticipated that most provinces will opt out.

In Amsterdam, cannabis will remain available to tourists but many see the new uncertainties as combining the worst of both prohibition and legalisation. In Holland, the battle for the stoner vote continues.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.