You hardly hear or see them any more, but the small-time growers who lovingly nurture a few plants in their homes are still common in the Netherlands. They produce cannabis for their own consumption, for the medical needs of close friends and family, or to sell to coffee shops. And they are constantly harassed by the courts and police, which have been meting out increasingly harsh treatment since 2004. "They are the ones who always get in trouble," explains Nicole Maalsté, a sociologist at Tilburg University.

"It is easy for the police to organize a raid in a working class neighbourhood but the major criminals are usually not effected. Longer investigations are required to successfully prosecute the big players." According to Maalsté, the aggressive police raids have created new opportunities for organized crime. "Driving small growers out of the market has created a vacuum that is being filled by hardcore criminals, and coffee shops are forced to deal with intimidating individuals they would much rather avoid."

Coffee shops making a hash of things?

We spoke to a 36-year-old local council employee (who preferred to remain anonymous) who cultivates cannabis in the attic of his house in the working class neighbourhood of Woensel-West in Eindhoven. Like other small producers, he does not consider himself an outlaw. "My girlfriend and I grow the plants for our own consumption. The grass sold in coffee shops is expensive, and the quality is getting worse. It is mixed with chemical products, and often they try to make it heavier with powdered glass and metals."

In his attic he has two growing cupboards with powerful lamps, each of which contains five cannabis plants. The council worker explained that he is careful to abide by the rules of the "tolerance" policy. Both he and his girlfriend own five plants – growing is officially illegal but only penalized when there are more than five plants per individual.However, in view of the fact that only female plants produce the flowers containing high levels of THC, many growers plant twice the officially tolerated number of seeds.

Bending the rules

Eighteen months ago, he received a visit from the police who had been tipped off by a neighbour. But the two officers concluded that he was not in serious breach of the law. Another grower, 40-year-old Kees, who lives in the town of Huizen, was not so lucky. "I wasn't able to make the policeman understand that to have five plants, you have to plant a lot more seeds.

They destroyed everything." Kees describes himself as a grower of "high-quality, 100% organic cannabis." He sells any surplus that he doesn't consume to coffee shops at prices ranging from 2,700 and 3,400 euros a kilo, depending on the quality and the customer.

Need to target organised crime

Nicole Maalsté and a large number of mayors in the Netherlands want small-scale producers to be registered so they can legally sell their product to coffee shops. As it stands, coffee shops are authorized to sell up to 5 grams per customer but they have no legitimate source of supply.

Maalsté believes that the police should focus more on prosecuting big-time criminals. "Small producers, who are well aligned with the Dutch tolerance policy, should not be exposed to harsh treatment. They grow good grass, which is usually free of additives. Their product is clearly better than the cannabis produced by organised crime, which is increasingly on sale in coffee shops."