Guilty verdict for Netherlands’ largest cannabis cafe – but no punishment

Edition 28 December,  by Max Opray

The owner of a Terneuzen cannabis business that was once the biggest in the Netherlands has been convicted of running a criminal enterprise. The verdict was a mixed bag for Checkpoint cannabis cafe owner Meddie Willemsen, who was found guilty in a Den Bosch appeals court of breaking the Netherlands’ complicated drug laws, but will not face any punishment for doing so. Although so-called coffeeshops are allowed to discreetly sell cannabis, they are only permitted to keep 500g on the premises.

Before it was shut down in 2009 Checkpoint was vastly exceeding that limit, keeping roughly 200kg of cannabis on site to cater to between 2,000-3,000 customers a day, generating turnover of € 26m a year. The judge ruled that although Willemsen had violated the tolerance agreements with the municipality and was participating in a criminal organization, this could not be avoided “when you run a well-functioning coffeeshop”. The judge continued that the case showed how the laws needed reform to halt the “paradox” of allowing cannabis sales but banning production and sourcing of the product. “Here lies a task for the legislator,” the judge said. The municipality had tolerated Checkpoint’s growth for years, even helping the business move to a larger premise on the outskirts of Terneuzen with expansive car parking. The municipality turned a blind eye until the public prosecution service decided to intervene, undertaking raids on the business that found it was holding far more cannabis on site than was legal. Willemsen expressed disappointment with the ruling, telling assembled press: “I had actually expected acquittal.”

The entrepreneur had previously pointed to deprivation of €28m in potential earnings since his business was shut down in 2009. Earlier this year he told PCZ the business was so busy before its closure that customers “had to pull a number from a vending machine. It was a race against time to catch up.” “Nobody wants to believe it, but it was not me to make the money, I just wanted to build the most beautiful coffee shop in the world.” It was by far the busiest cannabis cafe in the Netherlands, particularly popular among French and Belgian visitors from across the border, who together represented 90% of sales. The Public Prosecution Service had been seeking a conditional prison sentence of 7 weeks and a conditional fi ne of a quarter of a million euros, reported Omroep Zeeland. The penalty-free prosecution is the latest twist in a turbulent legal journey in courts across the country. Willemsen was initially sentenced by a Middelburg court in 2010 to a 16-week prison term, 7 which needed to be served conditionally, and a fi ne of nearly € 10m. That was overturned in The Hague in 2012 on the basis that the Public Prosecution Service should not have brought the case to court, on the basis that the municipality and the Public Prosecution Service had tolerated the situation for years. In 2016 the Supreme Court ordered a retrial, bringing Willemsen back to court once again for the latest verdict.

The government is planning to launch trials of legal marijuana cultivation in between six to ten municipalities, in a bid to remove criminality from the cannabis supply chain. Of the Netherlands 385 municipalities, 25 have volunteered to host the trial. Offi cially, the police dismantled 5,856 cannabis operations in 2015, roughly one fi fth of the total number believed to exist in the Netherlands.