Over the last 7 years I have been fortunate enough to travel to many progressive cannabis nations and learn about the ways other campaigners and activists have approached the battles that their unique circumstances have forced them to adapt to. These trips have been heavily influential on my personal life, my way of thinking and the way I approach my work with the clubs. They are what inspired me to start, continue and constantly evolve as we move forward in ever changing political and social climates towards cannabis.
When you think of a cannabis social club you don’t visualise a room full of middle aged and old people are going to be sitting down around tables in a room sharing cups of tea and coffee. No sign of smoke, or even any rolling equipment, not even a grinder in sight. But this is exactly the model of social club that Rinus Bientema of Suver Nuver is running in the Netherlands. Anyone with some experience of the US cannabis culture and the Spanish Cannabis Social Club model would question how on earth this would work, and why would anyone find such a concept appealing…it certainly wasn’t screaming “this is cool” to anyone passing by looking to buy some weed. The windows are vacant of the stereotypical charms and statues that adorn your usual Dutch coffeeshop.
The situation in the Netherlands is as such that you can go into a coffeeshop and buy up to 5 grams of herbal cannabis. They are in most town and cities but Amsterdam’s highest density gives international reputation for being the European hotspot for buying top quality cannabis. High grade strains with the latest names and genetic profiles will cost twice as much in the city as a far out of town ‘just for the locals’ type of establishment. They will have some good top shelf but nothing too “current” unless you are lucky. Due to the “backdoor problem” the name given to the issue caused by there being no legal way to stock coffeeshops, it leads to the constant inconsistency and flow of product raising all sorts of questions about where the money ends up.
Whereas coffeeshops are very much an in-and-out affair for most who just want to pick up their buds and go to consume them in the comfort of their own home, the concept of the Cannabis Social Club is to be more inviting and community driven. The idea for CSC’s isn’t to get people through the door, charge them a high price for weed and then high prices for drinks for the pleasure of sitting on a hard seat to be able to consume inside (due to smoking on the streets of the Netherlands is still a crime the flowers in your pocket are merely tolerated) unless you have somewhere private to consume it you’ll smoke in the coffeeshops. But because this availability has been there for citizens the need for something better and securing the right to grow never managed to gain much traction behind it.
Outside of that world though, if you aren’t interested in cannabis you probably know as much about it being a Dutch national as a British national of the equivalent demographic. For some obscure reason we Brits and citizens of other nations have the belief that anyone in the Netherlands can get access to medical cannabis if they need it; but not only that, they know it’s available if they need it. This is as incorrect and misleading as when I attend medical cannabis conferences around the world and hear a professor at the podium exclaiming “Britain has the most advanced medical cannabis system in the world”. As a patient, it’s also a statement that hurts, cuts deep and is an outright lie. On paper, to the lay man, it sounds idyllic, in reality to a patient who needs the products it’s offensive. Access is worse than a postcode lottery.
I head over to Amsterdam on the 15th of January to meet up with our UKCSC correspondent Lloyd Eggs, a regular contributor to the website with his Sensible Cannabis Consumer blogs and cannabis science nerd who has been working alongside the Suver Nuver Foundation for the last year. Throughout that time he has been educating me to their ways, their growth and the success that they are seeing in each of the areas they have chosen to tackle. “You really must come over as soon as possible” he urged me back in November, so once the AGM and all the Christmas events had passed it really was time to go and see what was taking place with CSC’s in another part of Europe.
Suver Nuver are a club with a mission. They are more than just a means of people gathering to entertain and facilitate themselves. They are more than just a network of like-minded individuals with skills that they combine on projects relating to cannabis and otherwise; this foundation is a creative hive of activists with a vision and they have found a way to make their work possible and not only that, they have made it effective. Even in these early stages big differences are being made with all the tiny steps that are being taken.
While Rinus, a tall man with a long grey beard in his 50’s who speaks with a calm kind voice is clearly the captain of the ship, this project could not happen without the dedication of hardworking volunteers that know the importance of the work they are doing and care little for the attention that it may get them – if anything in some cases they wanted as little as possible. Coffeeshops might be tolerated in the land of windmills and tulips but what Suver Nuver are getting up to is still very much against the law. The attitude that Rinus holds is quite clear. “If you can see something needs doing and you can think of a way to do it, make it happen.”
“I’ve many friends that grow cannabis, a lot of it.” He told me. “They have so much trim they don’t have the time to do anything with it and because production in the Netherlands is still a problem with the law they don’t have time to process it. They throw it away because it will go mouldy or worse, get them caught having stinking plant material hanging around for days.” Lighting his big hash joint he adds, “so now instead they donate it to me so it can be extracted into coconut oil for our members”.
The members of Suver Nuver as we identified earlier aren’t your usual cannabis establishment clients. In the few hours that they are open each day the footfall walking through the doors has more of a resemblance of a GP or hospital waiting room. Now that may seem odd, but it shouldn’t, especially considering how much mainstream media attention cannabis has been attracting due to it’s vast array of medicinal properties that benefit people with some very serious medical conditions, as well as some pretty standard everyday problems most of the population will at some point eventually have to deal with once age comes around.
My first experience of what Suver Nuver is all about was on a frosty morning. After waking up in Friesland to -5 degrees Centigrade and travelling across the stunning landscape covered in frost that had formed out of the thick fog that had rolled in the night before we reached Social Club Zwolle. Situated on a quiet but affluent street in town next to a wine merchants the club sits empty 6 days of the week. It is only on Tuesday that they come in and open up to the general public and to members acting as a cannabis information service almost exclusively to patients looking for some someone to talk to, someone who can answer their questions.
Fifteen minutes before opening at 2pm there were already several eager patients outside waiting in the sub zero temperatures. The room was simple. Just five or 6 tables with chairs around so people coming in had somewhere to sit and wait while a large flatscreen TV streamed footage of the Suver Nuver Foundation that had recently been broadcast on national television as a public interest piece.It was evident from the conversations that I had with those who I was lucky enough to be able to speak to in English that the message was getting out there. Either from mainstream or local media or through a friend that had recommended the service, even if they weren’t using it themselves the word of the good they are doing has spread.
Within an hour I had already spoken to 4 patients that had a serious need for this medicine, cancer, arthritis, rheumatism and neuropathic pain. It was a little overwhelming in honesty, the anxious nature of the patients coming in, totally unaware of what they were really coming to see but in such a personal predicament that they feel that they have been left no other choice. After not being able to find relief through conventional medication you are pretty much willing to give anything ago. Unfortunately this has also been acknowledged by scam artists that have decided sick people are an easy target to cough up large amounts of money for small amounts of cannabis oil. When you have a non psychoactive compound like CBD making the news and people who have never used cannabis before it results in a playground for money making schemes.
It’s not just scammers on the open and illicit black market though, as much as people would like to believe and point all the fingers. Legal Dutch medical cannabis, Bedrocan is still an extortionate expense to Dutch patients who have recently had the news broken to them that their health insurance which all citizens must pay for each month, will not be reimbursing their prescription costs for cannabis medical products anymore.
Midway through the day I met a couple in their 60’s who had lived in South Africa for 45 years so we enjoyed a very fluent conversation in English. The lady named Anja, has been suffering agonizing neuropathic pain in the left side of her face for 35 years. She has been on every wonder medication that has come out each decade and lived on a cocktail of opiates and other drugs in an attempt to give her relief. But there’s been no luck. For a brief time she did manage to find some help from a prescription while she was in South Africa but shortly after moving to the Netherlands her prescription was seized by customs only to be informed that the drugs fell under the Opium Act and she could no longer continue importing them for her own personal, medicinal use. Then, to my amazement I was presented a small white slip of paper which half way down the page, clearly said OPIUM RECEIPT. Above it was a prescription written out for a Bedrocan product containing less than 5% cannabinoids in a 10ml tincture solution. They went to their local pharmacy to collect the medicine in hope that it would help find an end to the suffering but they were told “we can’t stock that here, you’’ll have to go to the Hague, 130km away. After reaching the pharmacy in the Hague they were informed that the 10ml solution was going to cost them 50euros and they would have to wait for it to be sent in the post and cost them a further 8 euros. Now to someone ordering a piece of computer equipment this kind of service might be understandable and reasonable, but when you are standing there in pain suffering and you’ve waited this long already to get to that point – to be told that is cutting. The irony that her medication had been taken away under the opium act and then she was given a prescription for cannabis controlled under the opium act (which it is not) is still bouncing around in my head.
“What made you come to Suver Nuver for help?” I asked, as I did to everyone I met there. Without hesitation and before I felt I’d even got the words out of my mouth Anja replied
“I’m desperate and I have no where else to turn.”
There was clearly some level of distress in her voice and body language and as with the majority of those we spoke to that seemed to ease by the time the conversation had ended. “They have even given me needle therapy where they put long needles in my nerves and twist them, it’s excruciating and leaves me in more pain.”
Listening to Rinus explain how the foundation worked and how the patients received help, how they should use the medical cannabis coconut oil and what to do if it does or doesn’t work for them gave me a clear idea of why it was being so well adopted by this demographic who have until now – never come into contact with cannabis and never considered going into one of the coffeeshops – otherwise they would have already found help there. There can be a lot of casual spiritual connotations when it comes to the cannabis culture that are off putting to the christian society that makes up the majority of the voters in the Netherlands which is a similar situation to what we have in the UK. Suver Nuver hasn’t stripped this spiritual connection away, they just choose to wear this in their hearts rather than their shop windows and it shows through the passion and results of the organisation and the work the volunteers do.
Similar settings followed over the next 2 days. In Groningen, another beautiful town, where the club is located directly opposite a hospital. “They send people to us every month” Rinus said, “not even they can help everyone, but they know who is willing to try”. It just amazes me that this is a country that, among international cannabis circles is known for having medical cannabis yet here I am helping the Salvation Army for Dutch cannabis patients come along and offer some much needed support.
On Thursday we were in Freisland at the HQ of the Suver Nuver Foundation and it was the same thing yet again, only this time it was super sized. Swapping a one room shop front for their industrial unit space that Cannabis News Network described to me as “like walking into a church” there were already 15 people waiting outside before the doors opened and for 3 hours solid the clubhouse was filled to the brim with very desperate patients that found it hard to wait even with a cup of tea or coffee and some nibbles. This is where the social element of what they have created really came into play. Dozens of people of close age who don’t know each other all coming to the same space at the same time for a similar reason, health, having to wait, well…it kind of provokes the opportunity to have a conversation. I watched people share stories, advice, laughter and phone numbers while they waited and it also gave the swamped volunteers the opportunity to hold group consultations to work through the high number of applications that people were making to receive help from them.
If you were to ask these patients after their consultation if their perception of cannabis had changed I think the answer would be yes. Of the people that use cannabis, if their thoughts were negative they now have confidence installed that potheads aren’t all misfits and screw ups – there’s those of us that are good hearted and want to make a difference – and there are those who are just normal people – like themselves!
It was so busy on this day that I felt compelled to throw myself directly in the ring and speak to anyone that was able to in English. One gentleman I spoke to had bowel cancer and had been diagnosed just 2 weeks before hand. Fortunately through a screening required by his health insurers at his now over 50 status; it has been caught early and will be having the tumor removed in a few months. Chemo is not yet on the cards but he was not willing to wait to take any risks in the meantime while the results of the biopsy came back and wanted to get the oil from Suver Nuver. They left more than happy with the information they received and were very grateful to the existence of such a community project.
As I was wrapping up on camera for the video I have made throughout the week of Suver Nuver expressing my thoughts about the need for this in the UK an elderly gentleman walked in and said “I have Parkinson’s and I want to try the oil”. Over the last 6 years he had been forced to stop working, his hands were becoming less useful and more recently his speech has become slurred and is finding it hard to swallow. After hearing him explain his story to me I talked him through the model of the club, how they could help and then went to get Rinus to make sure there wasn’t anything I couldn’t cover without speaking Dutch. After their chat the man got up to leave, came over and said thank you to me with a look in his eye that made me know he felt he had been cared for and listened to, and then he was on his way.
At this point you’re probably wondering how exactly Suver Nuver do help patients with coconut and cannabis trim. Well it’s pretty simple. They make sure the cannabis is decarboxylated so the medicinal compounds THC and CBD are activated. It is then extracted into coconut oil and packaged up into 10ml pouches. These are then sent out to the members who have applied for a free sample and to members who have already received a free sample and have joined the foundation. For each packet of oil sent out to a member a donation of 10euros is made to Suver Nuver to help with the running costs of keeping 3 locations and a HQ running. Members join for 10 euros a month or if they are unable to do this 1 euro for the year and a donation to the club when and if they are able to. There are currently 250 applications for membership coming in every week and they already have 5000 members.
It’s safe to say that Rinus and Suver Nuver (a Friesland expression that means “pretty weird”) have created something needed and something extraordinary that has been taken very seriously. And they mean business. It ticks the activist boxes, it ticks the cannabis is medicine box and it is not asking for change, it is directly bringing it to people in a refreshing way and that is something to be commended.
Cannabis Social Clubs are starting to look like a friendly option to many who feel the coffeeshops model is only one way of doing things and maybe that goes for the pharmaceutical option too…