GROWING MARIJUANA, WITH DUTCH GOVERNMENT HELP
NAALDWIJK, Netherlands: -- James Burton, who once served a year in U.S.
federal prison, still gets a kick out of the signs at his marijuana
plantation here reminding employees whom to call in the event of an emergency.
The Dutch police.
Sixteen years ago, Burton did time in a maximum-security facility in
Marion, Illinois, and lost his family farm in Bowling Green, Kentucky,
after being nabbed with an estimated $112,000 worth of marijuana that he
said he needed to stave off glaucoma. Last year, the Dutch government gave
him a five-year contract to grow more than 10 times that much.
Burton, 56, seemed the perfect candidate to supply the Netherlands' new
medical cannabis program, through which terminally ill patients and chronic
pain sufferers can buy doctor-prescribed marijuana at local pharmacies. For
one thing, he has had plenty of on-the-job training, having grown and
smoked pot every day for most of the last 35 years.
"He's qualified to grow marijuana, I can tell you that," said Eddie Railey,
a Kentucky state police investigator at the time of Burton's arrest. "He's
good at it. He has a lot of experience."
Even his one-year stretch behind bars was not a total waste, he said, since
he got a grounding in the high-security techniques needed to guard a
government-sponsored cannabis crop. Thirty-two security cameras, three
vocal guard dogs and the occasional Dutch police car make sure no dope
leaves through the back door.
"It's better guarded than the bank here," Burton said proudly.
Dressed in a lab technician's white coat, his ponytail barely visible,
Burton nurses a deadly serious devotion to a plant that makes others simply
One of only two growers chosen for the medical cannabis program, this
American expatriate in Rotterdam was sure he had found nirvana in the
Netherlands, a place to fulfill his dream of establishing marijuana as a
valid medical treatment. His euphoria about the Dutch experiment, however,
has been short-lived. The Dutch program's one-year anniversary is this
month and Burton and health officials are clashing over what to charge for
medical cannabis, how to test it and even how many varieties to sell.
"Everything I have ever worked for is going down the tubes," he said.
Burton says government regulations like testing and packaging are ruining
his business. His medical mari
juana, which is radiated to remove bacteria,
sells at a drugstore for about $11.50 a gram; local cafes, so-called coffee
shops, often charge less than half that, so many patients understandably
choose to go there instead.
"The government here is sticking its neck out on this project and the whole
world is watching," Burton said. "Unfortunately, they have made some
misjudgments and miscalculations."
But if Burton's mission to make pot the world's next wonder drug has
already cost him his home and his freedom in the United States, his
mouthing-off on marijuana's behalf seems likely to result in the loss of
his government contract, particularly since, in the government's view, it
violates a confidentiality agreement.
At the least, his recent appearance on a national television network here
lambasting the medical cannabis program has exasperated Dutch officials.
"Certainly there are problems, but it's not a flop," said Willem Scholten,
director of the Dutch Office of Medicinal Cannabis. "It's too early to make
such a judgment."
Burton has not seen eye to eye with the powers-that-be ever since he went
to federal prison in 1988, when a federal jury ruled that the marijuana
growing at his farm constituted possession in spite of his claims that he
needed it to ward off his glaucoma. He has stuck to that defense since,
convinced that three joints a day -- he prefers the term cigarettes -- have
staved off a form of glaucoma that afflicts some members of his family.
After his release from prison, Burton decided he had little choice but to
leave the United States. His criminal case had attracted enough news media
attention -- even on national tabloid television -- to make him an
undesirable, even among drug dealers.
So he moved to the Netherlands, where he could buy and smoke pot care-free.
In time, Burton started distributing marijuana to Dutch patients, which was
technically illegal but tolerated. Business boomed and he opened the
Institute of Medical Marijuana in 1993.
Three years ago, the Dutch government put out a call for medical cannabis
growers. With his long experience in the field, Burton easily met the
ministry's requirements, including that he deliver cannabis of a consistent
quality during three separate trial runs. In fact, he can grow 134
varieties, slice it, dice it and package it tastefully in a joint, tea bag
or even cup of chocolate milk.