By Derrick Bergman
Cannabis Liberation Day, Holland’s biggest cannabis event, welcomed a surprise special guest this year: former prime minister Dries van Agt, who 40 years ago introduced the country’s famous policy of cannabis tolerance.
The event, which celebrated its eighth year earlier this month, is a free festival organized by the VOC, the union for the abolition of cannabis prohibition. Since the High Times Cannabis Cup abandoned Amsterdam in 2014, Cannabis Liberation Day is the only cannabis and hemp event in the Netherlands. The venue, Flevopark, is one of the oldest and biggest parks in the capital city.
This year’s Cannabis Liberation Day was special for a number of reasons. Notably, it was the first without Joep Oomen, one of VOC’s founders and the driving force behind numerous drug-reform campaigns and NGOs, such as Encod and Trekt uw Plant, Belgium’s first Cannabis Social Club. On the evening of June 12, a video commemorating Oomen, who died in March, was shown on a screen next to the event’s main stage. As it played, Oomen’s widow Beatriz and representatives of the Belgian Cannabis Social Club movement handed out bags to the audience. Inside were two female seeds, peat plugs to plant them, and a flyer quoting one of Oomen’s final writings:
“Now that years have passed during which people have employed millions of words to convince authorities of the utter madness that their drug policies are bringing the world into, it is time for the plants themselves to become actors in the debate. By growing plants for personal use we can demonstrate that it is possible to regulate the drug market in a manner that ensures transparency, accountability, honesty, sustainability, and health.”
A banner above the stage read, “Thuisteelt vrij, achterdeur open!” (“Home cultivation free, backdoor open!”) The phrase refers to the so-called backdoor paradox of Dutch cannabis policy: Coffeeshops are allowed to sell cannabis to consumers, but any form of cultivation or wholesale remains strictly illegal. The backdoor paradox has caused a range of negative effects, from gang involvement to inferior quality and inflated prices.
Former Prime Minister Dries van Agt, 85, who in the ‘70s and ‘80s led three governments as prime minister for the conservative Christian party CDA, appeared on stage to explain the origin of the policy. In 1976, when Van Agt was the youngest-ever Dutch minister of justice, he introduced a fundamental legal distinction between cannabis and other illegal substances, paving the way for today’s cannabis coffeeshops.
The 8th annual Cannabis Liberation Day was held in Amsterdam’s Flevopark. Photo by Derrick Bergman
“Of course it would have been much better if we had opened up the whole cannabis issue: no crime, no offense, no legal restriction whatsoever for cannabis,” Van Agt told the moderator. “But, my dear friend, in politics — unfortunately for the Netherlands — I wasn’t the only one who decided.’
After the initial breakthrough in 1976, he said he expected that “the whole system would start to move, and we would go further — much further.” But no Dutch government ever took the next step, and the backdoor paradox lived on. “This is the big disappointment,” Van Agt said.
But the future looks bright, he assured the audience. “The latest news is darned good, friends. The latest news is that Canada — yes, Canada — has decided to legalize cannabis.
“Why is this so important, more important than a few or even a lot of American states [that have legalized]?” he said. “Canada has an enormous political and moral influence on Western Europe. So this cannot remain unanswered here.”
Former Dutch Prime Minister Dries van Agt addresses the crowd. Photo by Derrick Bergman
Van Agt stayed at the festival for over three hours, participated in one of the debates in the film tent, and relaxed backstage in the VIP lounge. For attendees, it was a rare opportunity to meet the man who played such a historic role in Dutch cannabis culture, alongside other legends like Rick Simpson, John Sinclair, James Burton, Wernard Bruining, Doede de Jong, and Mila “Hashqueen of Amsterdam” Jansen.
Not a single incident of violence or conflict was reported at the event — just like the seven Cannabis Liberation Days before it. As British author Percy Grower wrote:
“This is how a safe and enjoyable festival can exist. With the absence of alcohol, the good vibes were infectious. Parents played with kids, young groups of people were just hanging out and dapperly dressed elders made out on the grass. The festival is a magnificent example of the benefits cannabis can bring to a society and gave me a real boost of optimism; not just for the cannabis movement in Europe, but the advancement of the human race as a whole.”
Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool published an interview with Dries van Agt the following day.
“When you look around you,” the reporter asked the former prime minister, “do you feel it’s an attractive idea that more cannabis will be used?”
Van Agt replied, “The more happy people I see around me, the happier I become myself. And if this is caused by cannabis, I say: ‘Do as you please, friends. Do as you please.’”
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