As more and more countries embrace cannabis legalization, it’s important not to forget the vital role the Netherlands has played over the last five decades by providing a safe haven both for cannabis plants and for cannabis people.
Throughout a long dark age of near total global oppression, the mere existence of Amsterdam’s coffeeshops provided reformers all over the world with an irreplaceable living model to point to when arguing for an alternative to prohibition.
For anyone who simply longed to get high in peace, those wonderful shops sent out a green beacon of hope, even if you were never fortunate enough to actually visit one in person.
And that’s not the only significant way the Netherlands changed the world of cannabis.
In the 1970s, Dutch seed banks began producing and distributing untold millions of high quality cannabis seeds. As a result, the Netherlands became the ultimate cannabis melting pot, a literal breeding ground where strains from Afghanistan and Morocco were crossed with strains from Thailand and Mexico, with the best of these hybrids going on to become international sensations once their seeds reached underground growers operating in every corner of the globe.
In short, it’s the story of how kind bud became a thing.
But why the Netherlands? What made it the one country to tolerate cannabis when nobody else would? And how did that tolerance forever change the way the rest of us grow, sell, and consume this plant?
The short answer is that it all started with a provocation.
A Rather Sizeable Loophole
Starting in 1964, the Dutch Provo movement (short for “provocateurs”) used a mix of street performances, subversive art, and impromptu political demonstrations to take on a system run by “despicable plastic people,” and push for a series of progressive reforms that included immediate cannabis legalisation.
To prove that the authorities were totally ignorant regarding cannabis and thus the total illegitimacy of prohibition against it, the Provos created “Marihuettegame,” which consisted of sending police on a series of wild goose chases by calling in anonymous tips on cannabis dealers and hashish parties that didn’t exist. The Provos also revelled in baiting the (unarmed) police into arresting them for something that looked like cannabis but was actually another herb.
Smoking hashish became a ritual at weekly Provos happenings, and the push for legalisation became a central tenet of the movement’s political demands. Eventually, the Provos’ ongoing clashes with the law led to the dismissal of Amsterdam’s authoritarian police chief in 1966 and the resignation of the mayor in 1967.
When the movement officially disbanded in 1967, many Provos moved full-time into cannabis activism, including Robert Jasper Grootveld and Kornelis “Kees” Hoekert, who together founded the Lowlands Weed Company. Having discovered a rather sizeable loophole in Dutch law—which banned only the “dried tops” of the cannabis plant—they began openly selling small plants and seeds from a garishly painted houseboat floating in one of central Amsterdam’s many picturesque canals.
The Lowlands Weed Company
Patrons would marvel at the thousands of small cannabis plants in peat moss pots that covered every inch of the boat’s decks (actually low-grade hemp grown from pigeon seed bought at a pet store), before being ushered below deck where a bohemian teahouse greeted them with the pungent aroma of a floating hashish-fueled nautical hotbox.
As Hoekert explained to High Times in 2008:
Cannabis didn’t exist at the time—it was all hashish. The hashish back then came from Morocco or Afghanistan. Marijuana was not brought into Holland because it was too bulky—too difficult to smuggle. So the only thing you could get in those days was either hashish or what they called ‘lowland weed’ [i.e. hemp] which is no good to smoke…. We thought: Why smoke hashish when we can grow the best weed here in Amsterdam?
To help spread the word, the Lowlands Weed Company’s proprietors started planting seeds everywhere possible in the city, from the Amsterdam Forest to right outside the airport, and even handed out free seeds to random motorists. Naturally, the two old Provos behind these new Marihuettegames hoped the police would arrest them and cause an even bigger media sensation, but the authorities refused to take the bait.
The Dutch Government Loosens Up
In fact, by 1969, the Dutch authorities had issued enforcement guidelines prioritising police to focus on hard drugs and not enforce laws against cannabis possession. Then in 1972, a Dutch student named Wernard Bruining and some friends exerted squatter’s rights over an abandoned bakery and transformed it into Mellow Yellow, a teahouse on a small side street that soon drew crowds for its steady supply of cannabis, which could be purchased from an employee posed as a customer.
Meanwhile, the Netherland’s government undertook a comprehensive review of its drug laws in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s.
Released around the same time as similar reports from the Shafer Commission in the United States and the Le Dain Commission in Canada, the Dutch study reached the same conclusion: Cannabis should be decriminalised and destigmatized. Unlike the US and Canada, the federal government in the Netherlands actually followed through and implemented those policies.
And that’s when the Dutch seed banks really took off.
From Skunkman to Schoenmakers to Sensi
The Netherlands’ early cannabis industry was a shadowy patchwork world of activists, outlaws, and true believers. People came from all around the world to take part, occasionally arriving one step ahead of the law, and often bringing the best of their own local genetics. Some of the earliest seed banks formed as partnerships between these cannabis exiles and local entrepreneurs.
Those first-generation seed merchants didn’t just proliferate classic strains, they also developed new varieties. Soon Neterweed—as the Dutch called their domestically grown cannabis—made Amsterdam’s coffeeshops a dream destination for cannabis enthusiasts of every nation. Many were all-too-delighted to discover they could buy seeds of their favorite strains and smuggle them home as a prized souvenir.
Holland was a center of plant breeding and flower sales since the tulip craze of the 1600s, and the gray market cannabis industry eventually began producing seeds in mass quantities and sending them to customers worldwide.
Because much of this activity remained technically against the law in the Netherlands, particularly when it came to shipping overseas, the true history of these seed banks and the people behind them is often obscured by secrecy, and much of what has been recorded is in dispute.
But let’s at least try to honor the true pioneers.