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Tuesday 2 September  
FAQ - Soft drugs in the Netherlands. Photo: Paul Pacitti
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Amsterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam, Netherlands

FAQ - Soft drugs in the Netherlands

Published on : 22 September 2009 - 12:05pm | By RNW English section (http://www.paulpacitti.com)
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The Netherlands is famous for its policy of tolerance towards soft drugs. But this tolerance has led to problems with so-called ‘drugs tourists’ coming to the Netherlands to take advantage of laws far more liberal than in their own countries. So what is the current situation, and can changes be expected?


- Is cannabis legal in the Netherlands?

No. Contrary to what is commonly believed abroad, and widely reported on the Internet, all drugs are forbidden in the Netherlands. Coffee shops may sell five grams of cannabis, under strict conditions, without facing prosecution and no legal action is taken for possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use.

It is an offence to:

  • produce
  • possess
  • sell
  • import or export

either hard drugs or cannabis. However, it is not an offence to use drugs.


- Who administers the drugs policy in the Netherlands?

To achieve a cohesive strategy, various ministries share the responsibility for drugs policy. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport is responsible for overall co-ordination, prevention and care. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for law enforcement, while matters relating to local government or the police are dealt with by the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. The ministries are assisted at the country’s borders by customs officers and the Royal Netherlands Military Constabulary.


- What is the rationale for the Dutch policy on the use of soft drugs?

The national drug policy officially has four major objectives:

1. To prevent drug use and to treat and rehabilitate drug users.
2. To reduce harm to users.
3. To diminish public nuisance by drug users (the disturbance of public order and safety in the neighbourhood).
4. To combat the production and trafficking of drugs.


- How is the policy implemented in practice?

The Dutch take a pragmatic approach to social problems. Recognising that it is impossible to prevent people using drugs, the Dutch solution is to allow the controlled use of small amounts of soft drugs, thus decriminalising a large proportion of soft drugs use, and divert resources to go after the criminals who profit from drugs, and those who supply hard drugs. It’s a policy that has worked well within the Netherlands for decades, but is coming under strain due to the free flow of people within the European Union.

Since 2004, it has become clear that organised crime is involved in large-scale cannabis cultivation in the Netherlands, and the authorities are now trying to catch and convict the offenders. As well as the ministries and other public bodies, parties such as energy companies and housing corporations are now actively involved in helping to identify and take action against the criminals. The guilty now run the risk of eviction from their homes, tax bills for undeclared income, bills and fines for theft of electricity, cuts in social security benefits, and penalties for not having the right permits.


- What are the specific guidelines permitting the sale of soft drugs?

Under the guidelines issued by the Public Prosecution Office on 1 January 2001, coffee shops are not prosecuted for selling cannabis providing they observe the following rules:

  • they may not sell more than five grams per person per day
  • they may not sell ecstasy or other hard drugs
  • they may not advertise drugs
  • they must ensure that there is no nuisance in their vicinity
  • they may not sell drugs to persons aged under 18 or even allow them on the premises.


- What happens if these rules are broken?

If the rules set out above are not observed, the premises are closed down and the owners or management may be prosecuted. Under the official drug guidelines, coffee shops may stock up to 500 grams of cannabis without facing prosecution. Municipalities may impose additional rules on coffee shops in order to avoid nuisance.


- Is most of the cannabis produced in the Netherlands or imported?

Some of the cannabis sold in the coffee shops is imported from countries such as Morocco and Pakistan. However, cannabis produced in the Netherlands – called nederwiet in Dutch - has become increasingly popular. Nederwiet is much stronger than the traditional imported cannabis.

Depending on the quality, coffee shop owners pay between 3,500 and 5,500 euros per kilo to cannabis growers. In 2008, 720 Dutch coffee shops sold some 255,000 kilograms of soft drugs, mostly grown in the Netherlands. Police estimate that only 20 to 40 per cent of the Dutch marijuana is sold locally. The majority is exported.

The Dutch tax authority receives some 400 million euros on value added tax originating from the sale of the soft drugs sold in local coffee shops. The total turnover in the soft drugs business is around two billion euros. This figure is comparable to the turnover of Dutch public transport.

The government is giving high priority to the investigation and prosecution of those engaged in the large-scale production of nederwiet, especially those who export large quantities. Despite this, there is always plenty available in the coffee shops. Small quantities that are obviously intended only for personal use are not targeted for prosecution, though technically even small-scale production is an offence.


- What are the penalties for producing and/or exporting large quantities of cannabis or other soft drugs?

Penal provisions are considerably milder than those for hard drugs. Moreover, a distinction is made between drug users and traffickers. Possession of soft drugs and hard drugs for commercial purposes is therefore considered a more serious offence than possession for individual consumption. For soft drugs the penalty varies from one-month detention and/or a fine of 2,250 euros for possession, selling or production of up to 30 grams, to a maximum four years imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros for import and export of large quantities.


- Is the Dutch government going to change its traditional tolerance policy towards soft drugs?

No. While cannabis remains illegal, the authorities turn a blind eye towards the sale of small amounts in coffee shops. On the other hand, the law is still enforced against those growing marijuana and supplying the coffee shops. The Dutch authorities see an advantage in selling soft drugs in coffee shops, as it stops many users from having to make contact directly with drug dealers in the criminal underworld, thus limiting the chance that they will be persuaded to move on to hard drugs.


- So what changes are taking place?

The number of coffee shops in the Netherlands is being scaled back. At the end of 2008, Amsterdam had 228 coffee shops where the sale and use of small amounts of marijuana and hashish is permitted. However a new national government policy dictates that coffee shops will not be allowed to operate within 250 metres of a school. As a result, in November 2008 Amsterdam announced it was closing down 43 premises. At the same time city mayor Job Cohen insisted the city was standing by its three-decade old policy of tolerating 'soft drug' sales.

Related article + audio: Amsterdam closes 43 'coffee shops'


- Are there differing views within the government about the way forward?

Certainly. Dutch governments are invariably coalitions, and the three coalition parties in the current government have long disagreed about the overhaul of the drug policy. The Christian Democrat CDA had called for an end to the tolerance policy and the orthodox Christian Union supported that position, but senior coalition partner, the Labour Party (PvdA), believes banning coffee shops will not solve the problems of crime, nuisance and health. In September 2009, a compromise was announced, designed to stem the flow of ‘drugs tourists’.

Related article: Sale of cannabis on its way out?


- What are the reasons behind the closing of some coffee shops?

The biggest problem is caused by so-called “drugs tourists”, that is people who come to the Netherlands specifically to take advantage of the tolerant policies which are missing in their own countries. The influx of these drugs tourists to the border provinces has led to complaints of nuisance from local residents, and has been a source of tension with neighbouring countries.

Coffee shops will be allowed to continue operating, but the cabinet wants to introduce measures to stem the flow of tourists. The final decision about whether and where coffee shops may be opened belongs with the local authorities and mayors will have powers to keep the coffee shops small and turn away tourists.


- What specific measures are proposed to curb “drugs tourism”?

One of the schemes under consideration is a pass system. In August 2009 the government earmarked 150,000 euros for a trial run in Maastricht that will involve turning coffee shops into private clubs requiring customers to show proof of membership at the door. It's not clear whether tourists will be eligible for membership.

Local authorities will also be allowed to experiment with the maximum quantities of cannabis on sale. The cabinet is also considering whether to allow trials with greater stock levels in coffee shops in order to reduce the nuisance caused by drug runners. These flag down foreign tourists and try to lure them to coffee shops, creating hazardous scenes on motorways.

Related articles:
Canna-pass curbs coffee shop tourism
Dutch message to drug tourists: c’est fini
Dutch soft drugs advocates critical of new cabinet policy

- Does the Netherlands have a more serious drug problem than other countries as a result of the tolerant policy?

Definitely not. Drug use in this country is average compared to that of other European countries. The number of addicts and drug casualties is one of the lowest in Europe. Far fewer people have been convicted for selling or using drugs than in other countries, because of the decriminalisation of drug use and the sale of soft drugs in coffee shops. Furthermore, the figure for drug-related deaths in the Netherlands is just 2.4 per million inhabitants, the lowest in Europe.

The latest figures available are for the period 2001-2005, when the percentage of users in the population aged 15-64 remained stable at 3.3 percent. That’s equivalent to 363,000 users at any one time. Five percent of the Dutch population have recently used cannabis according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction. The use of cannabis by schoolchildren peaked in 1996, but has subsequently seen a gradual decline. 17 percent of young people have tried cannabis at least once, and 8 percent have done so in the past month. Use of cannabis among boys is slightly higher than among girls.

Related articles:

Soft drugs
Coffee shops
Government puts up cash to cut drug nuisance

Video:

No - tobacco - smoking in 'coffee shops'
Dutch smoking ban spells disaster for 'coffee shops


- Are there any public nuisance problems caused by cannabis users?

In general, no. Nuisance is generally localised around the coffee shops, and the vast majority of the Dutch population have no day-to-day contact with drugs or drug users. There used to be a problem, particularly in hot weather, when the sickly smell of cannabis would linger in public places long after the smokers had departed. This was especially noticeable on public transport. But now smoking is banned in most enclosed public places in the Netherlands, including trains and buses, and the non-user rarely encounters the smell of cannabis except fleetingly in the larger cities.
 


- Is cannabis available for medicinal purposes?

Yes. In the late 1990s it became apparent that a significant number of patients were using cannabis obtained from illegal or unofficial sources to help ease their symptoms. Since September 2003, doctors are allowed to prescribe medicinal cannabis, which is available from pharmacies, but only under prescription.

 

 

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Max Harmreduction 11 February 2012 - 2:25pm

I googled dutch drug policy recently and it says about the same thing - but this is not the whole story. Yes Dutch policy does aim for and deliver real prevention. The aim of coffeeshop policy is:- To protect young people, particularly teenagers, who experiment with cannabis, from exposure to drugs like heroin and the organised criminals supplying them. Dutch coffeeshops have a cannabis culture that has always had REAL zero tolerance of drugs like heroin and injecting. Alcohol, XTC and all other hard drugs are forbidden in coffeeshops; so are junkies and dealers of hard drugs. The result can be seen in drug services and survey statistics:- Junkies in The Netherlands that are seen in needle exchange and drug treatment programs, on average, are ageing by nearly a year every year - and the numbers decline by 10% to 15% a year and have done so for decades. This is because there are virtually NO new junkies to replace those who either stop or die - thanks exclusively to the protection and prevention in coffeeshops. All you have to do is get a bunch of Dutch movies that cover the last 35 years of coffeeshops and note the date made, then spot the junkie - you can watch them age toward the bunch of geriatrics they are today. Compare that to the young punk junkies on coke and smack in todays movies from the USA, UK, etcetera. It makes no difference which country, experimenting teenagers virtually always start with cannabis - that is why it is called the Gateway drug by people outside Holland. Stepping-up to hard drugs is common everywhere but in Holland - this is all the proof most people need to accept that Dutch coffeeshops are the only place on the Planet where there is effective and REAL zero tolerance and prevention of stepping-up to junkie drugs. Max

billybobss 16 February 2011 - 12:53pm

Puffin13, cannabis is a mind, altering drug and it is dangerous to the people who use it. Would you want to fly on an airplane with the pilot high on cannabis or have a heart operation by a medical doctor who toked on a few reefers prior to opening your chest? I wouldn't! I don't even like the idea of someone high on cannabis when they are driving on a public motorway or someone who operates a train. People high on cannabis and alcohol are dangerous to others. You have a right a right to smoke all the mota you want but when you put lives of others at risk, you needed to be punished severely and held accoutable. http://imiquimod.org/government, in this case, has failed to protect the public, especially children, from their tolerant views of cannabis.

Anonymous 7 November 2010 - 11:52am / england

all kids experiment with pot ,and i'd prefer my son to experiment in a controled enviroment like a coffee shop ,than in some drug dealers squalid flat trying to get them on the hard stuff.
weed isn't healthy ,but, people will use no matter what laws we bring in ,why not tax the drug and stop the dealers from becoming rich ?
and i certainly would'nt want my son with a criminal record just because he was caught experimenting with pot , so the dutch policy of turning a blind eye to a coffeeshop where people can smoke thier weed ,but yet still keep a strict law on the use is a more reasonable option.
and think how much money is wasted in the uk of people found with a joint arrested ,kept in police custody for hours then put in a court system where they get legal aid to defend themselves ??? complete waste of taxpayers money.

Anonymous 5 December 2009 - 5:06pm / USA
Well this is so obvious...everyone wants to protect people from dangerous people. Drugs make people more dangerous (or sloppy), but it depends what you are doing. Many people are smart enough to drink/smoke when they are relaxing, NOT WORKING. USA tried to stop drinking too, for those reasons. Black marketing, killings, and political corruption sky rocketed. It's what movies are made of. It made the USA less safe. So government was forced to make the terrible drug alcohol legal. Now the EXACT same thing has happened with marijuana. Everyone knows marijuana is far safer, even at 50x the strengths from the 60's. It has never killed compared to millions killed by alcohol overdose since the dawn of time. in fact it has been far less studied than alcohol due to taboo/prejudice, most of this comes from corrupt socio-political power houses like governments and paper/alcohol busiensses already legal. Marijuana now has been found to kill small cell carcenoma's, lesson pain for some, increase hunger for those wasting away by disease. It is folly, foolishness to keep it illegal at all. These governmen'ts inlcuding Netherlands, are making money from keeping it that way. USA spends billions, and wastes 75% of it's arrests on people with marijuana. While murdererd and rapists don't get the police attention they really deserve. Thus the place is less safe. One death from marijuana due to law enforcement is far too many for the simplicity of this psycotropic yet physically a nuisance drug. There have been many innocent people killed in the cross fire from a plant that can grow next to your flowers and with no processing whatsoever provide a recreational or medicinal use. YOU CAN"T STOP MAN...GIVE UP YOU FOOLS>. We must legalize since we are letting our children use herion and other hard drugs. Netherlands is so close yet so far. The USA will lead the path to legalization. Many states it's already decrimanlized to hold an ounce and you get charged 40 euros for fine...right NOW..that is how it is where I live. To grow it, even one gram, is a FELONY? that makes no sense....and it cannot stand. American's don't care anymore about pot. If your a dr. or pilot you can be stoned cold drunk today..and YES, I WOULD MUCH RATHER HAVE MY DR. OR PILOT STONED than drunk...if it happens anyway, why keep a False LAW, against the people's will and totally ineffective in place? You don't. you treat it just like alcohol and move on to keeping ecstacy, mdma, herione and cocaine off the streets. USA will is leading the way...AS USUAL in freedom and people's rights. FIRST TO women vote, FIRST TO women driving, while our slavery record was terrible...we STOPPED IT...we will legalize marijuana and then what? we'll take your tourists thank you very much. We have plenty of cops to put them in jail when they act up .... Except we all know, (UNLESS your uneducated, or prejudice (most common) due to emotional or religious views.
Anonymous 2 September 2010 - 3:24am

Well iv got to say that iv been to Amsterdam and Den Helder and it was fantastic the way you can just go and relax with a splif and then goin get your ***k sucked is just amazing. If Scitland was to do the same instead of following the F******g English.....We can only hope...;-)

Gustav 16 November 2009 - 7:26am
I wish the Netherlands did more to defend and promote it's soft drug policies abroad, and to be unafraid to take the policy to the next level, which is obviously legalizing and regulating the growing and supply of marijuana to the coffeeshops. Especially within the EU the Netherlands needs to be fearless against Sweden which aggressively promotes its zero-tolerance, criminality-based drug policy for export to the rest of Europe. Luckily the winds of change seem to be much more in the direction of the Dutch approach in most of Europe, so hopefully nobody will be fooled by Sweden's disastrous policy which results in unacceptably high numbers of drug-related deaths and diseases from needle sharing. It is truly a nightmare up here for the few who will partake of drugs no matter what society says. It is human nature and there will always be some people in every society attracted to things like cannabis. These people should not be forced underground or stigmatized because they are interested in recreational activities that the majority aren't. One of the worst feelings in the world is to be stigmatized by society, so one of the worst feelings in the world is to be a Swede who prefers cannabis to alcohol. Watching the entire nation get drunk every weekend while calling you a dirty junkie for smoking a little cannabis while chilling out to music is annoying and only lowers your confidence in society. If they can go get drunk and do embarrassing things and be considered normal for it, why am I considered a junkie for wanting to enjoy something that is much more wholesome to life. Cannabis makes music sound better, makes food taste better, makes your friend's jokes sound funnier. All in all a simple amplification of those activities which we normally consider the most enjoyable and wholesome moments of life.
puffin13 23 September 2009 - 6:37am
Hiram, Cannabis consumers are not "drug addicts". Millions of people, world wide, have a desire for altered state of mind and has been used as such, from the dawn of time. Some achieve this altered state by drinking alcohol; some by consuming cannabis. Of the 2, alcohol is BY FAR the worst, yet it is legal. Cannabis remains illegal, in most countries, due to "Reefer Madness"; the foundation-less opinion the cannabis is a "killer weed". NO ONE has ever died as a direct result of cannabis use. Can the same be said for alcohol? NO! It can not! Not by a long shot. In addition, Cannabis has been used for thousands & thousands & thousands of years. It has many many medicinal purposes as well; uses that are much more effective and with fewer side effects than any pharmaceutical drug. I would respectfully suggest that you do extensive research on the many uses of Cannabis & Cannabis hemp before you deny the benefit of it. Also, in a conversation about Cannabis, try and stick to the subject and not lump "drugs" in with Cannabis. Cannabis is a medicine and a plant; it is not a "drug", like alcohol, cocaine or heroin is a drug. If Cannabis is made illegal, as it is in the USA, you will have more problems with it's illegality than you would ever have with it being regulated, taxed and controlled. LEGALIZE IT! Peace.
Hiram 23 September 2009 - 4:14pm
Puffin13, did you read the news article "Teenage cannabis addiction on the rise" in a previous addition of RNW? You also stated "If Cannabis is made illegal, as it is in the USA, you will have more problems with it's illegality than you would ever have with it being regulated, taxed and controlled. LEGALIZE IT! Peace." Puffin13, cannabis is a mind, altering drug and it is dangerous to the people who use it. Would you want to fly on an airplane with the pilot high on cannabis or have a heart operation by a medical doctor who toked on a few reefers prior to opening your chest? I wouldn't! I don't even like the idea of someone high on cannabis when they are driving on a public motorway or someone who operates a train. People high on cannabis and alcohol are dangerous to others. You have a right a right to smoke all the mota you want but when you put lives of others at risk, you needed to be punished severely and held accoutable. The Dutch government, in this case, has failed to protect the public, especially children, from their tolerant views of cannabis. The girl "Liza" mentioned in the article ""Teenage cannabis addiction on the rise" became addicted because of the Dutch people who think the smokers of cannabis have a G-d given right to smoke dope, get high, and addict children. Peace!
Hiram 22 September 2009 - 6:46pm
"The national drug policy officially has four major objectives: 1. To prevent drug use and to treat and rehabilitate drug users. 2. To reduce harm to users. 3. To diminish public nuisance by drug users (the disturbance of public order and safety in the neighbourhood). 4. To combat the production and trafficking of drugs." Response: 1. "To prevent drug use and to treat and rehabilitate drug users." Sure, the Dutch are preventing drug use. How are they preventing drug use? You don't punish the criminals who intentionally get young people addicted in order for them to buy more drugs. They steal, rob, and murder to get their highs on illegal drugs. You are not protecting the public by your so called "pragmatic approach" to drug usage. You are the cause and effect of every addiction and crime committed against the Dutch people. How are you going to rehabilitate drug users? You put them right back into the society which promotes illegal drugs. Skip two and three and go #4. "To combat the production and trafficking of drugs"....Combat implies the Dutch government is going to war with the criminals who sell and addict young people like Liza mentioned in another article. You punish them with a fine and they pay the fines with the illegal money they made from selling their drugs. They make enough profit from their illegal crimes, those fines are a cost in doing business. You are sicker than the drug addicts.
Amezz 24 February 2012 - 3:44pm / Netherlands

Compare the numbers to, for example, The USA. Pragmatic vs. zero tolerance. The former is much more effective.

Here in the Netherlands we are educated about drugs. People will forever want to try drugs, that's a fact. We have a very open society about this subject and I for one am glad that back in the day I could just tell my parents I tried a joint and be done with it. It wasn't special so I never did it again. Well isn't that weird since it's readily available in every city? No it's our approach. About 80% of everyone I know has never tried weed at all, nor do they feel the need to. Compare that to the USA or Sweden...

And getting addicted to anything is a choice in my oppinion. The better you are informed about the dangers, it becomes less likely that you will either never try it or just try it once. Here in the Netherlands we are informed. Heck, we even have testcentres were people can get their (hard)drugs tested (in very small amounts of course). This way the government can inform users, make sure that the people that do use, use responsively and also track where which drugs are prevalent in the country at that point (so they can go after the manufacturers).

In short, you know nothing of our drug policy. It's a proven method, just look at the data.

Dougie 3 November 2009 - 10:25pm
You really have no idea do you? Marijuana users dont steal rob and murder , thats a reason to keep the pragmatic approach with coffie shops so that illegal activity like this does not happen. Every one has a right to live there life the way they want if it does not harm others. You will never prevent drug use , as shown with prohibition in other states year after year.... Wake up to yourself

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