Mich Degens, a 41-year old affable and honest Belgian, must be one of the few people in the world to have been caught red-handed with one and a half kilos (almost 3.5 pounds) of marijuana and still be a free man. I caught up with Mich for half a day in the town of Hasselt, on the Belgian side of the Dutch-Belgian border. He told me his story whilst showing me the important scenes of the incident.
It was a cold and dark December day in 2013. Mich, chairman of Mambo Social Club, (Belgium’s second cannabis club) was taking the short walk to the well-to-do and popular Hasselt cafe, Borrelhuis. This was the location for the club’s meeting, where 60 members were eagerly awaiting their share of the crop that would be their medicine for the next month or so. He had nearly three and a half pounds of marijuana in the sports bag he was carrying. This was divided into 60 “portions” and accompanied with documents and declarations, as per the club’s protocols.
Mich made his way up the steps to the “Jeneverplein”, a small square surrounded by old folks’ residences which leads to an archway to the cafe when he heard, “Psst, Mich, we need to have a word.” Hidden behind a wall on his right were two police officers. His heart sank as he saw six other officers approach from all available escape routes.
Accompanying Mich home, the police proceeded to remove live plants, more dried cannabis, laptops and growing equipment. All the while, the police were incredibly civil, and borderline apologetic for their actions. They were apologetic because there is more to this tale than first meets the eye.
Meanwhile, the club members patiently waited, wondering why Mich was so late.
Scooting Over the Border
Born and bred in Hasselt, Mich soon found that the proximity to The Netherlands was a great plus when you appreciate cannabis. He first started travelling via scooter as soon as he was old enough to enter a coffeeshop. It was the 90’s and coffeeshop culture was in full swing. Coffeeshops were allowed to sell up to 5 grams of cannabis (herb or resin) to anyone over the age of 18. Officially, no one was allowed to grow or import cannabis, so the product “magically appeared in the coffeeshop through the back door”.
Getting more into the coffeeshop world, Mich started working for Heaven 69 Tearoom, a well-known coffeeshop in Maastricht. Whilst working there, he saw all sides of the coffeeshop business, giving him a great insight into the industry. He says, “there were many secrets to be unveiled because the illusion the customer saw was very different from the reality.”
The Weed Pass Effect
Around the 2010’s, he was working as a budtender. Also around this time, Dutch authorities were clamping down on the cannabis tourism that was arriving from neighbouring countries, particularly road traffic from France, Belgium and Germany. More restrictions were placed on coffeeshops, especially those close to borders, resulting in many legitimate, tax-paying employees losing their jobs. Mich was one of them. He was faced with two problems: first of all, he had no job and second, he had no trusted source to get his weed from. Imagine having been so close to the industry, then having to turn to street dealers to get your medicine.
Cannabis Gets Social
Meanwhile, the late Dutch drug activist, Joep Oomen had established the Cannabis Social Club model with his own club, Trekt Uw Plant (Pull Your Plant), in Antwerp. This was tested all the way to the high court and they had won. To many, including Mich, this seemed to pave the way for more clubs to follow.
Around the same time, Mich read the incredibly entertaining bestseller Too High to Fail, by author and journalist Doug Fine. Mich wanted to start a legitimate club that would have a strong relationship with local law enforcement, just as Doug had described in his book. Mich befriended Doug, and this resulted in a European book tour where they held lectures in various European cities explaining how things are done in northern California.
After operating for a year as a regional branch of Trekt Uw Plant, Mich’s Mambo Social Club became an independent cannabis social club. It was the second cannabis social club to be officially founded in Belgium.
Via word of mouth, Mambo Social Club started to gain new members. Mambo was initially formed around a group of nine responsible adults who believed in the project; all of them respectable, working adults who consumed cannabis for recreation or medication. It gave them a safe way to buy a quality 100% organic product away from any criminal market. Things were good.
As Seen on TV
In the summer of 2013, Mich was contacted by the producers of Koppen, a news program on the Belgian National television channel VRT, to make a reportage covering club operations.
One of the principles of a cannabis social club is transparency and Michel felt that he had nothing to hide. The club was operating in compliance with Belgian ministerial guidelines in the same manner as Trekt Uw Plant. The club agreed to cooperate in the production of the show.
Mambo was portrayed in a positive light; as a safe club run by members, a closed loop for the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis. This is in stark contrast to a market controlled by criminals with no scruples as to how the product is grown, processed and distributed.
After airing on November 24th 2013, the profile of the club was now common knowledge throughout Flanders, populated by the Dutch-speaking Flemish Belgians.
The Hasselt police were now in a very difficult position. They had no choice but to arrest Mich and show illegal activity is not tolerated under their noses. It seemed the Hasselt prosecutor was not going to allow a cannabis social club in his jurisdiction.
Going to Court
The knock on effect was the reduction in members of Mambo Social Club, which Mich refers to as
“natural selection”. The first wave left after the arrest, the second after the initial court case in which charges were processed, and the third wave after the appeal in a penal court hearing.
Mich was acquitted for the crime of promoting drug use, but was found guilty of production and distribution of cannabis. He was given a three year suspended sentence. Most of the original nine members remained and stuck by Mich throughout these challenging times.
Another knock on effect was Mich’s job situation. He returned to college to learn programming, but after graduating he found it impossible to land a job given his “cannabis celebrity” profile. Finally, thanks to his linguistic skills (he speaks Dutch, French, English, German and Spanish) and background in the cannabis industry he landed a job for BioTabs as a sales rep. “I’m not a salesman, but I’m passionate. I seem to easily sell a product that I am passionate about. If you know the principles of growing good organic cannabis, it is not a huge leap to growing organic peppers, eggplants and other vegetables too.”
I asked Mich what his plans were for the future. “For now, I have a job to finish here in Belgium.
Maybe one day, opportunities will come up in the U.S. for someone with my skills and background.”
The story is not over yet. Mambo is awaiting another trial that is set for November 2016. This will be a case before a civil court. The prosecutor of Hasselt is asking for the club to be dissolved on the grounds that they are a “danger to public order”.
Mich explains, “It’s a schizophrenic situation. The government is investing nearly 200k euros in a study on Belgian cannabis social clubs because they are interested in the model and want to understand the implications. At the same time, they are investing in the eradication and prosecution of clubs like Mambo. It doesn’t make sense.”
“To conduct a study on the workings of cannabis social clubs you need cannabis social clubs. I doubt if the Hasselt prosecutor realizes that he is sabotaging an expensive scientific study, but it is really a shame to see public money being wasted in this manner.”
The result of that upcoming court case will define not only Mich’s future, but quite possibly the future of all cannabis social clubs in Belgium.