Drug policy of The Netherlands

Whereas most countries of the world have traditionally followed an approach of punishment-based prohibition on cannabis and other drugs, the Netherlands have instead focused on harm-reduction.

The basic principles of the Dutch drug policy were largely formulated in the mid-seventies. This policy does not moralize, but is based on the assumption that drug use is an undeniable fact in society and must be dealt with as practically as possible. The most important objective of this policy is therefore to prevent or to limit the risks and the harm associated with drug use, both to the user himself and to society at large.

The cornerstone of this policy is the law known as the Opium Act, which is based on two key principles. Firstly, it distinguishes between different types of drugs on the basis of their harmfulness, with cannabis, hashish and psychedelic mushrooms on the one hand, and drugs that represent an “unacceptable” risk on the other. The terms ‘soft-drugs’ and ‘hard-drugs’ refer to this distinction.

Secondly, the law differentiates on the basis of the nature of the offence, such as the distinction between possession of small quantities of drugs intended for personal use versus possession intended for sales and distribution. Personal use of a drug itself is not an offence.

Cannabis cultivation, sales and use are formally illegal according to Dutch law. However, through the famous outlets known as “coffee shops” the sales of small quantities of cannabis is tolerated (condoned) under strict conditions. There are currently about 600 of such coffee shops in the Netherlands, with the majority located in the bigger cities. Tolerance is a typically Dutch policy instrument which is based on the power of the Public Prosecutor to refrain from prosecuting offences.

This principle is formulated in the law and is called the “expediency principle”. The small-scale sales carried out in the coffee shops are thus a legal offence from a legal viewpoint, but under certain conditions it is not prosecuted. These conditions are: no advertising, no sales of hard-drugs, no nuisance must be caused in the neighborhood, no admittance of and sales to minors (under the age of 18), and no sales exceeding 5 grams of cannabis per transaction. The stock of the coffee shop should not exceed 500 grams of cannabis. If these rules are violated, the shop can be closed down by the municipal authorities. Currently, a new requirement is proposed stating that coffee shops should be at least 350 meters removed from any school.

The main philosophy behind the Dutch policy towards the coffee shops is that of harm reduction. This is based on the argument that if small-scale cannabis sales and use is not prosecuted under certain conditions, the users – mainly young people experimenting with the drug – are not criminalized (they do not get a criminal record). Also, they are not forced to move in criminal circles, where the risk that they will be pressed to try more dangerous drugs such as heroin is much greater. Tolerance does not mean that cannabis smokers can just light up a smoke anywhere they like outside a coffee shop.

Although no formal rules prohibit cannabis smoking in public places, such as bars, restaurants or train stations, very few people do so. If they do no sanctions are applied, but the person is likely to be asked by the staff to put out the cannabis cigarette.

The absence of formal regulations for the use of cannabis has opened the way for these informal norms, and their existence and effectiveness is an aspect of Dutch drug policy that is often underestimated and difficult to grasp by foreigners. For example, tourists who visit Amsterdam commonly make the mistake of thinking they can smoke cannabis ‘everywhere’. In response to this and other problems with public cannabis use, the city of Amsterdam has even invented a new traffic sign. It must be noted that the majority of the Dutch population, especially senior citizens, have never consumed cannabis and do not know much about cannabis regulations or habits.