(REUTERS) Once in his greenhouse in a remote Dutch village, Doede de Jong proudly nurtured a thriving cannabis crop to sell to local users. Now only five plants remain, after the police moved in.
Yet the 66-year-old Dutchman remains unbowed after winning a symbolic court victory despite deliberately flouting the country's liberal drugs laws.
In a verdict that could have major implications for cannabis growers in The Netherlands, a court last month found De Jong guilty of breaking the law, which allows individuals to grow a maximum of only five plants each.
But the judges refused to hand down a sentence, arguing that the goal of this self-described hippie was quite distinct from that of real criminals who rake in huge, illicit profits from drugs sales.
"I did it out of principle because I believe in the recreational and medicinal uses of weed," De Jong told AFP, standing among the tomatoes that flourish now where for four decades marijuana plants grew.
"This is the first time that a judge has shown respect for what I am doing. It's a great victory." De Jong, who also produces cannabis oil, moved to the isolated northern village of Appelscha to live in a farm surrounded by fields "to be closer to nature".
He only recently had running water installed. And he insists he was a small-scale organic grower, with just a few hundred plants, supplying one local coffee shop.
The Netherlands decriminalised the sale of small amounts of cannabis - less than five grams - and allowed each person to legally grow five plants for personal use in 1976.
Now the country has about 600 so-called "coffee shops" where people can legally buy dope while enjoying a cup of coffee - no alcohol is served.
But the wholesale growing and sale of marijuana remains banned, forcing legal coffee shop owners to buy from criminals to meet the demand.
De Jong's case has been welcomed by the Dutch association for the legalisation of cannabis, VOC, which hopes it may herald longer-term changes to the law.
"We are very happy with this evolution as there is a real issue on the table. Does the cultivation of cannabis fit within the framework of the law? We think it does," said VOC spokesman Derrick Bergman.
Drug law expert Deborah Bruin, from the university of Amsterdam, said the decision by the Leeuwarden appeals court "is very interesting. But it's too early to know if it will become a trend." Supporters of the cannabis laws say regulating growers would allow better quality control, reduce the risk of fires linked to illegal plantations and raise money in the form of taxes.
Several places, including big cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht, have signed a so-called "Joint Declaration" calling for local authorities to be allowed to regulate growers.
The move was narrowly defeated in May by the parliament in The Hague, with 75 MPs voting against and 70 in favour.
But on Monday, the association of municipalities renewed their appeal, saying the current laws were "unsustainable" and they should be allowed to licence growers in order to break "the grip" of criminal gangs on marijuana production.
The government insists however that regulating cannabis growing would do nothing to stop the criminals as most production is destined for export.
The Dutch policy grew up in the years of the hippie movement and had been intended to allow a limited supply of dope for a local market.
"It was only later that it turned into this huge business for the coffee shops with the corresponding demand for production," said Bruin.
Today's coffee shops generate millions of euros annually, and in major hubs they have proven a huge draw for some of the millions of tourists who visit the country every year.
The Leeuwarden court appeared sympathetic to De Jong's arguments, saying it believed "the defendant did not act in order to get rich." In another case last year in northern Groningen, judges returned a similar verdict, but openly criticised the law and refused to impose a penalty on the defendant.
The judges insisted the growers had always been open about their intentions and had even declared their revenue to the government.
But their decision was overturned on appeal and the growers were given three-month suspended sentences.
In Appelscha pottering among his denuded greenhouse and garden where he once grew some 20 cannabis varieties, De Jong has no regrets.
"I was a hippie, and to some extent I still am," he said, with a rueful smile
(REUTERS) Doede de Jong cultivated hundreds of cannabis plants to supply a local coffee shop.
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