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AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) - The Dutch Health Ministry, unhappy with legal sales of medical marijuana through pharmacies, will reevaluate its program later this year and may close it, a spokesman said Monday.
In a country where unauthorized marijuana has been easily available for decades, the government was surprised to find that prescription marijuana produced under stringent quality controls has been far less successful than predicted, said Health Ministry spokesman Bas Kuik.
The Dutch were considering their reassessment as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that users of medical marijuana could be prosecuted under federal law even if their doctors had prescribed it legally according to state law.
Official intolerance in America for marijuana still raises eyebrows in the Netherlands, where marijuana is accessible to any adult in ``coffee shops'' - so called to maintain the fiction of legality. In the shops, the sale of small quantities of marijuana remains technically illegal but is tolerated by the authorities.
``It's a witch hunt, that's what they do in the United States,'' said Marcel de Wit, who until two years ago grew marijuana under license from the Dutch government for medicinal purposes.
The government is selling less than a third of the marijuana it thought it would and is losing money, prompting the health minister to call for new studies on whether the program should be discontinued or modified, said Kuik.
After an exhaustive study, the government set up the Bureau of Medicinal Cannabis that would supply standardized and regulated marijuana that underwent quality control, especially for patients suffering chronic pain from multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, neuralgia and cancer.
Sales began in September 2003 and fell flat.
Doctors who had lobbied for legalizing prescription marijuana in the 1990s failed to prescribe it once it was available in drug stores, Kuik said.
One reason may be the high price of prescribed marijuana compared with the product sold at the neighborhood coffee shop. The prescription marijuana is about double the price of the unauthorized drug - or about $280 an ounce - since it must cover the costs of regulating production, packaging and sales tax.
Some health insurance companies reimburse patients for prescribed marijuana, but not all.
Another reason for the Dutch policy review is that the current health minister, Hans Hoogervorst, is less committed to liberal drug policies than his predecessor, who initiated the program, Kuik said.
Hoogervorst argues the medical value of marijuana has never been scientifically proven, despite anecdotal testimony from sufferers of chronic pain.
The review is due to begin this autumn, and Hoogervorst is to make his recommendation around the end of the year, Kuik said.
Meanwhile, so many foreigners come to the Netherlands to smoke pot in coffee shops, especially in towns near the German border, that the Dutch are considering restricting sales to residents or to customers with special passes.
Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner has said the Dutch must take action to curb ``drugs tourism.''
A pilot project was being considered in the town of Maastricht, near the German and Belgian borders, to require marijuana customers to produce identity cards.