BY MARIA LOKSHIN

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- There's a whiff of crisis in the air at the Dutch Health Ministry: It's sitting on a pile of pot that it just can't sell.

The Netherlands rolled out a program last year that allows patients to buy prescription marijuana at any pharmacy. Some medical insurance policies cover at least part of the cost, but often not enough to offset the pharmacy price.

In a country where any adult can walk into a "coffee shop" and smoke a joint for much less than the government price, many say the experiment is a bust.

"I think it's a shame that they can't deliver a cannabis product a little bit cheaper than the coffee shops, said David Watson, head of Hortapharm, an Amsterdam-based company licensed to research and develop cannabis for pharmaceutical use.

"Why is it that a legal commodity is more expensive than an illegal commodity?"

The government says packaging and distribution push up its prices, and acknowledges its program may be foundering. Of some 450 pounds in anticipated sales, only about 175 pounds have been sold, said Bas Kuik, spokesman for the Office of Medicinal Cannabis, an arm of the Dutch Ministry of Health.

The government sells two varieties ranging from about $10 to $12 a gram -- enough for up to four joints. Coffee shops sell it for as little as $5 a gram, with only the highest-quality weed fetching prices comparable to the government's.

Under the liberal Dutch approach dating to the 1970s, the law forbids privately growing and selling marijuana, and has no tolerance for dealing in hard drugs, but refrains from prosecuting the sale of small amounts. AP