Beyond Amsterdam: Marijuana Policy Reform Takes Europe

Since Europe is experiencing the same remarkable sea change in drug policy that North America, South America and the rest of the world is, I was glad, as the Drug Peace Bumblebee, to be able to pollinate across the Pond – the trade winds were whispering that a new and successful cannabis club model is birthing in several EU countries. 

As he lives and works in Belgium and I in New Mexico, I expected the interview with Mich Degens, founder of the Mambo Social Club in the Flemish town of Hasselt (population 71,000), to be the most difficult to set up of any of column so far. And it was. But the Skype wasn’t the problem. It was smooth, crash-free and without even those troubling moments when your partner on the other end becomes briefly robotic – and slow motion robotic at that.

No, the difficulty was the flooded Land of Enchantment river I had to ford to even return to my ranch from a town run for the virtual meeting. This year’s high desert Monsoon, following so quickly after the 150,000 acre wildfire about which I wrote in an earlier column has turned my already Black Diamond driveway into a “swim at your own risk” situation. Neighboring ranchers’ vehicles have turned into boats and washed down to Mexico. Scratching their hat brims and assuring me that the river never acted like this when their granddaddies were negotiating with Geronimo, suddenly my non-liberals friends don’t want to talk about anything except climate change.

So you’ll understand why a fellow who’s dripping mud and silt onto his keyboard as he logs into Skype is firmly of the belief that when the world’s number one crop – cannabis – comes aboveground, it must do so in ways that are healthy for body and planet. What a relief it was to discover that Belgian provider Degens, who was back home unwinding from a long day operating his cannabis club when we spoke, shares this sustainability priority. 

Fundamentally, the 37-year-old, clean-cut Degens motivation for cannabis activism will sound very familiar to the 100 million American aficionados of the plant: “I’m a law-abiding guy who wants to legalize my only crime,” he told me. “I have no problem with anyone who prefers alcohol responsibly, even though I had a stepfather who showed me the dangers of alcohol abuse. I decided to make sure that I and my neighbors can know that if cannabis is their choice, it will be 100% organically grown, cannabinoid tested, and reasonably priced.”

Living 25 miles from the Netherlands, Degens told me, allowed him, to hold his “dream job” for six years. “I got to advise people about my favorite plant [at a Dutch coffee shop]. The owners were not in it to get rich. It was an educational experience for me, and for the customers.” 

Then, in April 2012, Holland’s longstanding cannabis policy changed, and in the southern provinces nearest Belgium, only Dutch citizens can partake of Holland’s quasi-legal cannabis market. “Imagine if Italy only allowed Italians to drink Italian wine!,” Degens said emphatically, waving his hand toward his laptop’s camera to produce an almost 3D effect. “I lived and paid taxes in Holland. It’s an abominable policy. Quality is going down and prices and crime are going up.”

But the rule change in the Netherlands – besides proving the ill-advised and very likely temporary effect of a right-leaning government trying to win points in a dying culture war and instead only (what a shock) encouraging the organized crime syndicates that the nation’s famous 1976 cannabis decriminalization was so successful in stifling – is opening doors for the rest of Europe.

Every Continental country’s policy is unique and evolving, but Belgium allows medical cannabis aficionados to grow (or have someone grow) one plant, and so the Mambo Social Club -- which in its first four months of operation already has 62 members -- provides exactly that: one plant worth of cannabis flowers per member. Best of all, for a solar-powered organic goat rancher like me who wants his kids to inherit a habitable planet, the club works with a few dedicated farmers, ensuring quality, organic practices, and sustainability.

“For these reasons, I’m thankful for the changes in Holland,” Degens told me is perfect English. “I re-found the love of the plant in this club model, and I’m on a mission to end prohibition in Europe once and for all.”

The Mambo Social Club, named after Degens’ Yorkshire terrier, is open to all Belgians 21 years or older, but it leans upscale, Degens said. “Our members are lawyers and businesspeople.”

For that reason, Degens’ job includes the role of part-time lobbyist, making sure the Belgian authorities on all levels see how the Drug Peace can look. “It’s a generational issue here,” Degens said. “We don’t have an incarceration industry pushing the drug war. We just have older people who believe cannabis is wrong simply because it’s been forbidden in their lifetimes. That’s what I’m working on with the club. Trying to win people over who themselves don’t choose cannabis. To lead by example.”

Once he accomplishes that mission, Degens said, he wants to see “Spain’s level of acceptance” of cannabis across Europe. “Now we’re just a top-end provider. I and I think all the members want the club to be a lounge where members can come and socialize.”

But, he said, one step at a time. “For now we’re trying to broaden our plants’ genetics, to provide members more choices, particularly if they are using cannabis for acute medical reasons and are seeking specific cannabinoid profiles.” Here he paused, laughed, and joked, “Ask your readers to send us some high CBD seeds.”

One of two such ventures in Belgium, the Mambo Social Club is a member of the Continental network of cannabis providers known as The European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD). 

When I asked him if he has any fear about sticking his neck out by playing a vocal leadership role in evolving European drug policy, Degens said he can’t help being someone who, once he decides to embark on a task, tries to do it at the absolute top level. In other words, he’s one of those workaholics who doesn’t notice because he loves his work. 

Smelling victory, Degens told me, helps. As is the case in the U.S., he said drug policy has become “a whole different world in the past five years. Activists like me and those before me have been shouting about the benefits of ending prohibition for decades, and now it feels like everyone is shouting along with us. I think now it’s about acceptance: now is the time for everyone to speak up to their family, friends and coworkers. For the everyday fan of the cannabis plant to come out of the closet and show that this is a choice that responsible members of society make, and in fact it’s a comparatively safe and healthy one. Society is better with cannabis aboveground. Say that.”

Degens has, with mixed results. “My father is one of these people wouldn’t object if I drank half a bottle of vodka and then drove a car, but who’s trained to think cannabis is somehow in a different category. It’s still something of a wedge for us. Yet my mother handles the books. Culturally we have the momentum.”  

As does the club itself, where Degens said his first thought every day is, “How close am I to recreating my lost dream job in Holland?” He’s crunched the numbers, and he’ll be able to work full time as Mambo Social Club Employee #1 when the club signs up its 150th member. He thinks it’ll happen by the end of the year. “I’ve been working weird shifts at a factory job loading pallets, and it’s fine, but I won’t be sorry to leave it,” he said. “Bottom line, as far as my motivation: I don’t want to have to do through the black market for my choice of social lubricant, and I don’t want my friends, neighbors and fellow citizens to either.”

Doug Fine's weekly Drug Peace Bumbelee columns first appear on the National Cannabis Coalition. Reprinted with permission


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