Legal cannabis

Starting in September, seriously ill patients can get legal cannabis on prescription at Dutch pharmacists. They won’t have to go to a ‘coffee shop’ anymore. There are two grades at the pharmacist, the cheaper one being 40 euros for 5 grams, the higher grade between 50 and 55 euros. Customers will have to pay for their cannabis themselves, as it is not refunded by medical insurances. They will have to pay more than at the coffee shop, where a gram costs about five or six euros.

(Source: Metro Augustus 29th 2003)

State pot at the pharmacist

Every week Ger de Zwaan sends 60 joints to a nursing home in Amsterdam. “You can’t send those old folks to a coffee shop', he says. “And what do the people at the coffee shop know about the effect of cannabis on pain, nausea and spasms. There are so many different kinds of hash, and it makes such a difference. If you’re not careful you’ll get a batch of pot which makes you cough too much, or stuff that has been sprayed with pesticides'.

The Foundation of Patients for Medicinal Marihuana, of which de Zwaan is the chairman, distributes hash on prescription for some years now. From their office in a residential area of Rotterdam they send 2 kilos medicinal cannabis a week. That is seven hundred joints and hundreds of hash packets for tea, vaporizer or inhaler. Monthly shipping costs: 2500 euro. More than five thousand patients are a member, among them 1500 Belgians. The oldest customer is 96 years old.

Next week De Zwaan will have to close down. After years of lobbying, over fifty TV and radio appearances and endless correspondences with the Dutch Ministry of Health, this pioneer will finally get his way. From September 1st cannabis will be available at Dutch pharmacists for patients with a doctor’s prescription. International law demands that a state has a monopoly position when it allows the cultivation of cannabis. This ends the policy of tolerated lawbreaking (the famous Dutch “gedoogbeleid') under which De Zwaan could operate freely the last couple of years.

But he views this milestone as a mixed blessing. The pharmacist pot will be available for five categories of patients. Half of his members, including himself, will not be able to buy pot at the pharmacist. And he doubts whether all patients will benefit from the state hash. He offers ten kinds of different strength, because the effect can vary considerably from patient to patient. The pharmacist has only two kinds, the super strong “White Widow' not being among them.

Another drawback is that the pot will not be refunded by most insurance companies even though it is twice as expensive at the pharmacist. De Zwaan asks not more than four euros per gram, the pharmacists charge eight to ten. De Zwaan has gathered a group of small scale cultivators who deliver at cost price. The state cannabis must travel from the two official cultivators to the wholesaler, where it is sterilized and packed and then sent on to the pharmacists. The quality control also drives up the price, according to a spokeswoman of the KNMP, the Dutch organization of pharmacists.

De Zwaan has noticed that patients and doctors are concerned about the coming changes. His phone is ringing non-stop, patients are placing extra orders, just to be on the safe side. He shows a letter of the Dutch Ministry of Health. It states that up until now he has done good work but starting from Monday, he will not be allowed to supply or stock cannabis anymore. “That cannot be', is his firm opinion. In a chair in the corner, an elderly man points to his wife who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Thanks to the hash she barely trembles.

Next week he will have to go to one of those noisy coffee shops where the pot is much more expensive, where they don’t know his wife and might not sell what she needs. And what about those Belgians, for whom De Zwaan specially opens his office on Sundays? “Among them are terminally ill cancer patients. Should they just go figure it out for themselves?' In a room next to the office, co-worker Henk imperturbably rolls joints made with a mixture of two thirds tobacco and one third pot. In the back of the office there are a few plants which supply pot for those patients who really can’t afford it. There are quite a few of those, according to De Zwan.

He hopes for an official dispensation. De Faria, the alderman for the Rotterdam council has invited him for a talk. From Monday he expects hundreds of phone calls about the state pot. A pharmacist is not an experienced professional. “What would he know about the highness of the herb?' he says.

It is not for nothing that he has been advising general practitioners all these years. He is concerned about the nursing home. Who will be rolling the joints there? The Ministry of Health thought the nurses could qualify. “No way. We’re not talking about paracetamol here.'

Source: De Volkskrant Augustus 28th 2003