Last July, five members of the European Parliament from different political groups and different EU Member States came together to create an interest group of MEPs who support human rights-based policies related to personal use of cannabis.
We spoke to founding member and MEP Dorien Rookmaker, who is due to speak at Cannabis Europa in May, about the shifting attitudes towards cannabis across the EU, and what role the Netherlands will play in the growing liberalisation debate.
Hi, Dorien, and thanks for joining us. For our readers who may not be aware, could you tell us about yourself and your role in the European Parliament?
Yes, I’d love to. My name is Dorien Rookmaker. I have been a member of the European Parliament since 2020. I’m currently a member of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Committee on Transport and Tourism. Before I became active in politics, I worked mainly in the financial industries as a risk manager, and also at the national railroad company in the Netherlands.
In July last year, you and four other MEPs set up an informal interest group who support human rights-based policies relating to the personal use of cannabis; can you tell us a bit about how this group was created?
A couple of European members of parliament came together from all different groups. Only the far right is left behind, but all other groups are present – represented in our inter-parliamentary group.
We came up with the idea to form a group to enable discussion about legal use of cannabis for recreational purposes based on facts and figures.
Discussion nowadays is dominated by emotions most of the time, especially for people who are against the legalisation of cannabis and are afraid for their children, so the discussion becomes a very emotional, not factual, way of communicating with each other.
And this happens in the street, but it happens also in politics. We decided that we need to harmonise laws and regulations in the European Union. And this is important because members of the public are asking their governments to regulate cannabis for recreational use, and this is going on in every member state.
So, instead of letting this process go on, and be confronted in a couple of years with all different kinds of rules and regulations, we think it’s better to try to come up with harmonised legislation at the same time
Six months on, can you tell us how the group and discussion have developed since inception?
It was kind of difficult at the start to come up with a harmonised approach amongst ourselves. So it has taken a little bit of time to come up with a plan.
For instance, there are some members who are taking this as the starting point of legalising drugs because they want to unify rules and regulations within Europe not only for cannabis, but for all kinds of substances.
These I call the greater harmonisers from the European Union, and you may mainly find them in the Renew Group. Then, of course, at the left, you have the people who are strongly in favour of the complete legalisation of drugs and especially cannabis, then the socialists are somewhat in between.
My group, for instance, the ECR Group (European Conservatives and Reformists Group), are a somewhat centre-right group. Our main focus is on individual responsibility.
So, the starting point is different for all of us, but we ended our discussion at the same point, and this is that the use of cannabis for recreational use should be an individual responsibility. And because we are the EU, it’s better to make rules and regulations that are all the same across Europe.
In December last year, the Council of the European Union (EU) agreed an updated policy paper entitled ‘Council conclusions on human rights-based approach in drug policies’ – do you think this points to a change in attitudes towards drugs across EU member states?
Yes, I do, and it gives me hope. The whole paper generally goes from criminal prosecution to protection and taking care of citizens, and I think this is a very important change in the approach.
In a lot of member states the situation is still that the focus of governments is on repression and prosecution and sentencing people who are either using or trafficking drugs. And I really don’t think this is a solution, and I don’t think it’s fair either.
And now, this paper is more or less heading towards taking care of people who are using drugs, to de-stigmatisation of people who are addicted to drugs, and the protection of children and women and vulnerable groups, especially when they are in the judicial system or in jail. So, I think this is a huge step forward for the EU as a whole.
The Netherlands has been at the forefront of discussion surrounding the liberalisation of cannabis laws for years due to its coffeeshop culture; what role do you see the country playing in this debate moving forward?
Well, the situation is a little bit complicated in the Netherlands right now. We used to be at the forefront, but we have now a government that is divided among more conservative and more progressive political groups.
So, we have the Liberals on one side and the Christian Democrats and socialists on the other side. And there’s a big difference in opinion and approach between the two parties.
We are trying to launch a pilot because since the 1970s we have sort of condoned the use of cannabis: everybody’s allowed to use cannabis for recreational use, you don’t have to be afraid of prosecution or jail.
So, we have a long tradition in this, but production of cannabis has always been forbidden. And now we’ve started a pilot to get some form of legal production of cannabis. We selected a few legalised producers and they are trying to establish farms where they can grow cannabis completely legal and regulated.
But this pilot is not going very well, and this has nothing to do with the Dutch government – the hurdles have come from a completely different angle.
Because we have anti-money-laundering laws across the European Union, we have a banking system that is even reluctant to open bank accounts for companies or organisations that are involved with legal drugs, as cannabis is, so these selected growers cannot open a bank account.
It’s a stupid operational hurdle, but it is a very important one.
I’ve heard that two of the selected growers are starting now in the southern part of the Netherlands. It will be interesting to see how they’re getting on. But as we look at the discussion worldwide, I think the Americans and the Canadians are getting ahead of us now.
Are there any other blockers preventing this pilot from moving forward?
Well, I think the one thing that is blocking the conversation nowadays is that we have a very polarised political climate. And this makes discussions of all controversial subjects very difficult – not only concerning the use of cannabis but also topics like migration and inflation, etc.
With the European elections in 2024 coming up, this situation could go both ways. Politicians are always looking for a way to distinguish themselves from their competition – they’re not operating very differently in this aspect from businesses, for instance.
So, it could be that the discussion will be halted for a while and stopped because people are afraid of getting into a discussion that’s so controversial, when elections are coming up. But it could also be the case that politicians will pick up this topic because it is a nice topic to talk about, as it concerns regulations, overregulation and the role of government in society. So, we will see how the discussion will evolve.
What can other EU countries learn from Dutch experiments with cannabis so far, and what might the Netherlands be able to learn from other member states?
I don’t think that the situation of the Netherlands can be repeated in the future. This has something to do with overregulation in the European Union. In the 1970s, it was a completely different ball game – we were allowed to act on our own.
Within the Netherlands, we have this tradition of being a sort of rebellious province of Germany. We have this tradition of neglecting the rules if it’s bad for business – we’re a country of traders most of the time.
But you see in countries like Germany and France, they are far more legalistic. And these are the two countries that are in charge of rules and regulation development in the European Union. So, I don’t think that the Dutch are able to give a good example. I think it’s far better to be pragmatic about it, and we should aim at getting harmonisation of rules and regulations, and legislation as free as possible.
I do understand and believe that we do not want a society in which we are forbidden to do anything. I think freedom is a very important quality of our European society, and with freedom comes responsibility.
If we do not allow our citizens to act freely, they have no chance of developing a sense of responsibility. And because cannabis is a relatively innocent substance in terms of drug use, I think it’s a very good beginning of teaching people how to take responsibility for their own lives.