Cannabis Social Clubs – 10 years on

Ten years since the emergence of Trekt Uw Plant (TUP) in Belgium – pioneers of the Cannabis Social Club (CSC) model – CSCs have gone through various motions across Europe. The aim of this short article is to retrace a rough, and by no means exhaustive, topology of these recent developments focusing on Belgium and the Netherlands.

Belgian Trials & Closures

The tragic passing of Mr Joep Oomen – emblematic leader of TUP & ENCOD – coincided with a relative recession of the CSC movement in Belgium. The success of TUP both legally and practically was the catalyst for the setting up of similar organisations along with an activist impetus for change. However, the past months have effected a pragmatic rebuttal of many such efforts. Mambo Social Club lost its ‘day in court’, convicted for possession (but acquitted for charges of ’incitement to’ or ’facilitation of drug use’). Even though Mambo SC will appeal the decision, the latter is unquestionably a blow in terms of legal precedent*.

Further indications of pragmatic restrictions came when the continued efforts of Liege Social Club ‘Peace’ to create a dialogue with the local authorities were routinely rebuffed – whilst the organisation is at its infancy from and operational point of view. After almost two years of activity, CSC The Herbclub saw its doors close in June 2016 due to unspecified internal reasons. These legal, practical and pragmatic inefficiencies of the various Belgian CSCs are the reflection of an uncompromising rigidity from the Belgian authorities combined with a real need for structural change – perceived or not.

Paradoxically, Belgium is (accidentally) in possession of a suitable legal fame-work for CSCs, even though cannabis is strictly illegal. This is provided by the 2003/2005 directive which allows the possession / cultivation of one female cannabis plant per adult. Even though the ‘collectivisation’ of this provision in the form of CSCs is a non-trivial issue, the gap is not ‘unbridgeable’ particularly given some external factors: 1) existing Belgian production, consumption and (illegal) export of cannabis 2) a coherent a cohesively expressed public demand – along with an acute sense of social and ethical responsibility and transparency. 3) Public Health & Medical Cannabis

Even with the introduction of Sativex to the Belgian market, implicitly reproducing the notion that cannabinoids have at least some medical value, the political class has failed at the minimal task of initiating a meaningful public debate on cannabis – let alone leading serious initiatives of reform or the implementation of a (UN mandated) Cannabis Bureau**.

Dutch Troubles

In the Netherlands CSCs have faced a continued battle for existence in an environment dominated by commercialisation of cannabis. The ambiguity rests on the fact that coffeeshops are technically ‘tolerated’ given the existing cannabis growing / production laws. Where the authorities show tolerance towards coffeeshops, tables are turned with regards to CSCs. Statutes concerning ‘personal growing’ of 0-5 plants where toughened up whilst the sale of growing equipment was outright banned. Evidently the measure failed to impact coffeeshop supply, it was however an attack on a fundamental premise of CSCs which curtailed timid existing efforts.

New Ideas: Research, Medical Cannabis & Quality Control

Organisational limitations of CSCs in their present form along with an unresponsive public policy can be a pessimistic assessment of the past 18-24 months in Belgium and the Netherlands. Paralleling this analysis however, there are clear markers pointing towards a development of CSCs both on the conceptual and practical level. Academically, the University of Ghent has obtained a an FWO research grant for the first ‘in depth empirical analysis of the [CSC] model as developed in Belgium’ – led by Professor Tom Decorte. Speaking to Mafalda Pradal, doing her PhD as part of this project, says ‘The overarching aim of the project is to improve the understanding of the Cannabis Social Club phenomenon as a model for the supply of cannabis’. In addition to empirically gathered operational and structural descriptions of CSCs and CSC-members’ demographics, the study aims to assess the ‘quality, purity and potency of the cannabis produced and distributed by the Belgian CSCs’. Conducted by Prof. Dr. Jan Tytgat and Prof. Dr. Eva Cuypers, ‘pending approval from FAGG, the toxicological analysis of cannabis samples is expected to start in 2017’. The study is due to complete in 2019.

As a long a term research project, this initiative represents a clear indication that the CSC model carries some weight in cannabis policy debates (informally at least). It is a well-defined and rational assessment of a current model whilst adhering to evidence-based methodological criteria. Even though some limitations can be found in the scope of research and conceptual reach, it is an eagerly awaited assessment. Whilst the exact efficacies that made this project possible are difficult to establish, it represents a maturing of the CSC movement by virtue of the latter’s verifiable social inscription through academic research.

This ‘step in the right direction’ is reflected in the recent activities of younger CSCs in terms of their operational ethos and pragmatic understanding of the present legal and policy situation. A notable example is MCC VZW – active since 2015. Guy Hoffman, its founder, has explained to us his commitment in a number of measures and protocols looking to increase product quality, purity and diversity of cannabis products as well as operational efficiency and transparency. It has to be added that MCC is an explicitly Medical social club (MCSC) – understood in terms of membership criteria. Specific measures include considerable efforts in clean room technology implementation in production, patient/member follow up and data-collection, product labelling and packaging amongst others.

MCC’s attitude, whether consciously or not, demonstrates a developed sense of social responsibility as well as a pragmatic understanding of organisational limitations – addressing them by implementing evidence-based methodologies to increase efficiency, transparency and quality standards. The pragmatic attitude is extended to legal and policy considerations whereby it is understood that legitimisation is inevitably linked with the above standards. This ethos is mirrored in the activities of Mr Romain Gosseries, who is in the process of setting up his own Medical Cannabis organisation along the MCSC model. His organisation, MCRC (Medical Cannabis Research & Consultancy), aims to grow specifically medical cannabis along, although not identical to, the BEDROCAN protocols. This implies rigorous growing conditions, strain stabilisation and quality control analyses of the plants to verify the claimed standards. There is a long-term ambition behind MCRC which is to provide a sustainable model for the provision of the Belgian medical cannabis needs. Given the lack of a Belgian Cannabis Bureau the project faces considerable political obstacles. The idea, however, remains to countenance political rigidity with solutions crafted from established (and comparable) commercial / production standards as well as a sense of social responsibility.

CSC as a concept is a mutant. It is a concept standing for certain core values but it often associates with other principles of self-organisation. The result is a great diversity in the form of CSCs across Europe. Exemplifying that point is the case of another Belgian cooperative (anonymity preferred), which is currently setting up what they call a ‘communal garden’. The idea is for people to join in the communal garden to the best of their abilities and resources, whilst a core of herbalists take care of plants, and share in the harvests. The principle extends beyond cannabis and the aim is to have it running by the end of summer 2016. While previous cases examined showed the practical and organisational limitations of CSCs, other very current cases exemplify the drive of individuals involved in the sector imbued by a sense of renewal and progress.

Human Rights Arguments from the Netherlands

Further away from the grassroots origins of CSCs, Radboud University has provided an unexpected argument for the legitimisation of CSCs. The paper in question was published in the spring of 2016 and examined the possibility of justifying some form of cannabis production / consumption on human rights grounds (as opposed to standard UN conventions). Without being explicitly voiced in support of CSCs, Mr Everhardt of the city of Utrecht, has harpooned onto the new argument in order to re-ignite the debate within his community – particularly when it comes to alternatives in cannabis regulation and modes of production. The typical societal and public health benefits are targeted.

Invoking human rights with regards to organisational forms of cannabis consumption / production is something previously alluded to in an article on Medical v Recreational Cannabis. However, the argument was not spelled out and it ran on a different direction to the one considered here, which is strictly of the domain of international law. The principle is nonetheless similar to some extent in the sense that given some basic conditions are met, there is an unalterable right to self-determination – over and above particular international conventions as the paper argues.

Concluding Remarks: Cannabis Social Club Endurance

A short overview of recent developments in CSCs obtains two contrasting pictures. Shortcomings, legal and practical limitations of CSCs are met by renewed efforts, with new organisations picking up where others left off. This indicates that the longevity of CSCs is at issue, with TUP being the only notable exception. It also indicates that among adversity, CSCs as a concept and mode of organisation persists and it is often related with close notions of Medical Cannabis and Self-Care. Finding a regulatory frame encompassing these activities is necessary in order for CSCs to find the legitimization they require for delivering the organisational & societal benefits they claim.

*Conflicting info gathered on that point

**UN conventions state that any Nation State desiring a Cannabis Program (medical or other) need to establish a Cannabis Bureau