Belgium has an unusual history in terms of drug policy. For decades after prohibition, all drugs were treated similarly harshly. At the turn of the 21st century, cannabis laws were relaxed and personal quantities tolerated. However, a change of government late last year may spell an abrupt end to this tolerant approach.
Belgium has a relatively unusual recent history of drug policy. Until 2003, there was no legal distinction between the various classes of controlled substances (such as the ‘schedule’ systems employed in many other countries), and a cannabis offence would be treated the same as a heroin or cocaine offence.
In 2003, a new directive was issued that differentiated cannabis from other illegal drugs and introduced the concepts of public nuisance and problem drug use; the directive allowed for possession of cannabis in small quantities to be decriminalized, provided the individual was over the age of eighteen and was not a problem drug user or involved in public nuisance. Typically, fines of between €75 and €125 for the first offence, between €130 and €250 for a second offence and between €250 and €500 for a third offence within a year would be levied, and offences would be recorded anonymously.
In 2005, a revised directive was issued, setting the legal limit for possession at three grams or one cultivated plant, and reemphasizing the penalties to be levied on individuals in possession of excessive quantities or in case of public nuisance.
This state of relative leniency persisted until October 2014, when the new, right-leaning government of Prime Minister Charles Michel announced an end to the policy of tolerance. However, Joep Oomen, coordinator for the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) has stated that in practice, the framework of the law has not changed and that last year’s declaration merely referred to zero tolerance for consumption of cannabis in public places, rather than a blanket criminalization of possession. He stated, “No sensible country at the moment is heading toward prohibition.”
Sale of cannabis
The laws relating to the sale of cannabis in Belgium are based on the original 1921 legislation on illegal narcotics, which although amended in 1975 and 1994 has changed very little with regards to sale and traffic of illegal drugs since its inception.
Sale of cannabis is a criminal offence and is subject to custodial sentences of 3 months to 5 years and fines of €1000-€100,000. Aggravating circumstances (involvement of minors, injury or death, or links to criminal organizations) can increase sentences to between 5 and 20 years and fines to between €5000-€500,000. A May 1998 amendment to the law states that custodial sentences may be suspended or revoked if drugs are sold only to enable an individual’s personal drug use, provided no aggravating circumstances are present.
After the law changed in 2003 to permit the possession of small quantities of cannabis, Dutch coffeeshop owner and entrepreneur Nol van Schaik set up a website offering online sales of cannabis to Belgian residents. Expecting fierce resistance from the authorities, he was surprised to instead receive positive media coverage and support from politicians who believed it to be a sensible means of delivering the small quantities permitted by Belgians while keeping sales within the country illegal. However, shortly after setting up, other right-wing politicians began to target his operations and he was forced to close the site down.
Cultivation of cannabis
The cultivation of a single cannabis plant per individual was decriminalized in Belgium in 2003, as it was considered to fall into the category of small-scale possession. Currently, it is not thought that last year’s announcement will affect individuals cultivating within the legal limit.
The cultivation of cannabis in Belgium has become endemic over the last thirty years or so. In the 1990s, the growth of the cannabis industry in the Netherlands caused a marked increase in the number and size of cannabis grow operations not only in the Netherlands itself but also in the border regions in Germany and Belgium, whose primary raison d’etre was to supply cannabis to the Dutch coffeeshops and large-scale illegal distributors.
Despite relatively strict laws governing the cultivation of larger quantities of cannabis, there have been several reported instances of large-scale producers being sentenced to remarkably light penalties. In one 2009 case, the operators of a plantation thought to be the largest in Belgian history were let off on a technicality, as it was successfully argued that the initial search of the premises had been of dubious legality.
Medicinal cannabis in Belgium
Since July 2001, Belgium has permitted the use of medicinal cannabis as a treatment for glaucoma, MS-related spasticity, AIDS and chronic pain by those in possession of a valid prescription from a registered doctor.
The wording of the 2001 legislation allowed for the sale of small quantities of medical cannabis in pharmacies, but it seems that to date, no medical cannabis patient in Belgium has had their prescription filled by a Belgian pharmacy. Instead, patients in need can obtain cannabis from one of five social clubs currently operating in Belgium, or may go to pharmacies in the Netherlands to have their prescriptions fulfilled. Patients in Belgium do have the option to obtain Sativex, the market-approved sublingual spray produced by British company GW Pharmaceuticals.
In November 2014, it was announced that the Belgian federal minister for health, Maggie de Block, was working on a proposal to allow for the sale of small medicinal quantities in pharmacies throughout the country. As yet, it is not clear what the outcome of this effort will be.
The social club system is thus far the most effective model for delivery of small quantities of cannabis to those that need it. However, they have not been without their share of trouble from the authorities. Trekt Uw Plant (“Pull You Plant”) was the first cannabis social club in Belgium; shortly after it opened, it was raided and its proprietors arrested and convicted of incitement to drug use. However, after mounting an appeal, the convictions were overturned. The social clubs continue to produce cannabis for their patients in grow sites whose locations are undisclosed.
Hemp and cannabis seeds
Belgium has a small but significant industrial hemp industry. Prior to the World Wars, the industry was much larger (and had been for many centuries), but as with the rest of Europe, the industry declined in the post-war period. In the 1960s, the hemp crop was revived, and now Belgium is a significant global exporter of hemp. Hemp varieties must be approved by the EU and must contain no more than 0.2% THC, as per the EU directives.
The sale of cannabis seeds is a grey area; it is not specifically prohibited by law, but vendors have had problems with authorities. In the mid-2000s, many grow shops in Belgium were closed, and growers were forced to go to the Netherlands in order to obtain equipment there.
After his website offering online sales of cannabis to Belgians was shut down, Nol van Schaik announced his intention to set up shops in Belgium that would (although not selling cannabis themselves) offer equipment, seeds, and information on all aspects of growing and consuming cannabis, including courses on how to cook with it. However, the right-wing faction, in particular the Vlaams Blok member Filip de Winter, took exception to his efforts and made it his mission to shut down all operations. Ultimately, van Schaik was forced to flee Belgium due to fears that authorities there would extradite him to France to face an old charge of hashish smuggling that still hung over him.
Although equipment supply stores are still scarce in Belgium, the recent decisions by Dutch authorities to close down all grow equipment stores in the Netherlands has led to a reversal of the previous trend—rather than Belgians buying from the Dutch, the Dutch are now travelling to Belgium to get their hands on whatever they can obtain.
Belgium’s political parties & cannabis
The Flemish Interests Party is arguably the most virulently anti-drugs of all the Belgian political parties. Member Filip de Winter was instrumental in having Nol van Schaik’s operations shut down, and has repeatedly referred to him and other cannabis activists as being “poison dealers”. He also stated “Mr Van Schaik, the so-called idealist founder of the Hemp Museum, better watch out”.
The Reformist Movement is the party of current Prime Minister Charles Michel. The party itself is generally anti-drugs, although some of its members have in the past expressed faith in the tolerance system. Charles Michel himself is among the most ardently anti-drug members of the party.
Another right-wing party, the New Flemish Alliance boasts among its members Bart de Wever, the mayor of Antwerp who first rolled out the zero-tolerance policy that has now been adopted across the whole country.
Although not a political party in its own right, Ecolo J is closely affiliated with the Belgian Green Party, Ecolo. After Charles Michel announced plans to end the tolerance policy, Ecolo J immediately responded with calls to legalize all drugs in personal quantities and to establish regulated sales of drugs so that the black market would be quashed.
* Born and raised in England, Seshata moved to Amsterdam in 2004, immediately becoming involved in the cannabis industry. As well as working for various Amsterdam coffeeshops, she began volunteering at the Cannabis College in 2006 in order to gain a deeper understanding of the cannabis plant and the medical research into its use. She has also spent time travelling in Morocco, learning from local producers and suppliers in the Rif Valley towns of Chefchauoen and Ketama.Republish