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:
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.