Wednesday March 27, 06:31 PM
By Paul Gallagher
HAARLEM, Netherlands (Reuters) - Entrepreneurs and cannabis connoisseurs this week smoked, cut and rolled hashish and marijuana at a five-day "Cannabizness" workshop teaching participants how to run Dutch-style coffee shops abroad.
Students at the "Coffee shop College" run by a cannabis cafe owner in the sedate city of Haarlem said they hoped to be able to ply the trade in licensed shops in their own countries as pressure to relax laws prohibiting the drug grows across Europe.
The course aims to give its participants experience working in Haarlem's coffee shops serving hashish and marijuana, testing and grading the wares. It also provides information on the unique Dutch experience regulating 900 licensed coffee shops.
Seated on plastic chairs in rows of desks in the back-room of the "Willie Wortels" coffee shop -- festooned with tiny lights and covered in cartoon rabbit murals -- some participants smoked cannabis, filling the air with the aroma of sweet smoke.
"I'm here because I want to open a Dutch style coffee shop in England," said Chris Baldwin, a long-haired 52-year-old veteran British campaigner for the legalisation of cannabis.
"The best part for me is the cannabis because I love it. I have been involved in cannabis for over 30 years... I would say somebody who is a connoisseur of wine is no different to me and my world of cannabis really. Where's the difference?"
The British government said last year it wanted to ease the laws on cannabis by no longer making possession of the drug an arrestable offence and allowing its use for medical purposes.
Willie Wortels regulars looked on from the alcohol-free bar, casually smoking cannabis by the pinball machine and pool tables as its owner Nol van Schaik asked the course participants to sniff or smoke lumps of brown hash resin in an adjoining room.
"You break the hash open and look inside," van Schaik told his class after the intoxicating resin and leaves were handed out to the class in small cellophane bags sporting the logo of a small green cannabis leaf.
DREAMS GO UP IN SMOKE
Successful graduates can look forward to a lucrative life if Dutch coffee shops are any measure of what awaits them if cannabis is legalised in their own countries.
The Dutch shops on average generate an annual turnover of about 400,000 euros (247,200 pounds) a year. Those near the borders with Germany and Belgium rake in as much in just a month.
"We are like any ordinary business in Holland. Taxes are being paid, staff are being employed and paid for. We are paying our bills through banks. Our money is accepted everywhere," van Schaik said.
Some of the dozen British, French and Swiss participants rolled and smoked joints as they received handouts for their course books on coffee shop history, regulations, security and health while examining resin and leaves under microscopes.
"It makes it look like a mountain range you could climb inside and explore," one participant said gazing at a dark brown piece of hashish resin under a microscope on a table covered with metal ashtrays and cigarette papers.
"Bit of lemon (scent) in it?" one man asks the teacher, sniffing at a mud-coloured strip of hashish in a class made up predominantly of visitors from the United Kingdom.
News that the government wanted to soften Cannabis laws was followed by revelations that Britain's Prince Harry, second son of heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles, had smoked cannabis and drunk heavily last year. The news briefly catapulted the issue to the top of the British political agenda.
The question of decriminalisation has also been accompanied by a debate about the medical use of cannabis. Canada became the first country in the world to allow people suffering from chronic illness to legally use and grow the drug last year.
"I'm a medicinal cannabis user. I've got multiple sclerosis (MS). I use cannabis to combat all the terrible effects that come from MS. It works very well for me and everyone else I know," a British woman taking part in the course said.
"Ill people don't want to be traipsing the streets looking for a dealer so coming somewhere like this (coffee shop) would be perfect. I think it is the sensible way to go," she said.
After testing and selling cannabis, learning how to roll joints with a machine and hearing about cultivation methods from Morocco to Afghanistan, the participants are to round off the course with a field trip to some of Amsterdam's 200 coffee shops on Friday.
The class will also sit a multiple-choice test featuring questions such as: "When should outdoor marijuana plants be put into the ground?" and "Do male plants flower earlier or later than female marijuana plants."
Participant Jerry Ham was keen to learn so he can set up a coffee shop and medical cannabis distribution network in Britain when the legal environment makes it possible.
"I will need business plans and will need products to sell. This is
about coffee shop management. I'm finding this to be invaluable," the 35-year-old
from Brighton, England said.
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