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Dutch Soft Drugs Policy

The inside dope on the Dutch attitude to soft drugs

Editorial comment

Unfortunately the article below is now out of date. The introduction of the now notorious Weed Pass legislation in May 2012 has been followed by one political fiasco after another, culminating in the current three-pronged impasse between the national government, local town councils on the southern borders and the southern coffeeshop owners themselves. Read more »»

Info on the original implementation of the Weed Pass »»

See all blog posts on cannabis tagged 'cannabis' »»

weed plantsBag of weed

...the distribution of hashish and marijuana to the public is strictly regulated by means of the coffee shop system

As is widely known, the Netherlands has for many years operated a policy of tolerance towards soft drug use. This is not a laissez-faire policy, however, as the distribution of hashish and marijuana to the public is strictly regulated by means of the coffee shop system.

A common misconception is that soft drugs have been legalised in Holland whereas in fact cultivation and possession remain a criminal offence. Personal use is tolerated, however, and there are many coffee shops where smoking joints on the premises is allowed. (One bizarre side-effect of the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants is that such joints are meant to be pure marijuana with no tobacco included!)

This origins of this policy can be traced back to 1970 when the open sale of cannabis was tolerated for the first time at the Kraalingen pop festival. Police were ordered not to arrest hash dealers who were openly selling their wares within the festival grounds. This was a major departure from the strict drug laws which were in force at the time and set a trend for the future. The first coffee shop selling soft drugs, the ‘Mellow Yellow’, was opened in Amsterdam in 1972.

Cannabis cafes

Coffee shops specialising in the sale of cannabis spread to many large towns and cities in the late seventies and by the mid-eighties they had become an accepted part of Dutch life. In the beginning, they were careful not to display outward signs of the trade and only a small amount was allowed on the premises. The dealer looked like any other customer and kept his wares in a bag under the table.

This situation has changed in most areas and now the various types of cannabis on offer are often on display just like any other commodity. Menus on the wall and table tops list the prices per gramme of the different varieties and the actual selling is often done by the same waitress who pours the coffee. Some outlets have a special counter where hash is cut from large blocks and weighed while you wait, finally laying to rest the secretive, ‘under the counter’ atmosphere of days gone by.

Coffee shops may not admit anyone under 18 and alcohol is not permitted. They must also ensure that hard drugs are not sold or used on the premises. The purity of the stuff on sale is subject to local authority control and tax is levied on the trade.

Do it yourself

Home grow shops can be found in most big towns selling all the equipment needed to grow marijuana at home under lights. This is by no means a secretive business as these shops advertise freely in newspapers and some even sponsor local football teams.

The irony is that people caught growing weed are liable to prosecution and the confiscation of all the plants and equipment. A small amount of plants may be ignored by the police but housing associations are getting tough on tenants who engage in this form of free enterprise.

Industrial-scale marijuana farms are common in Holland and stories of large busts are a regular feature in the Dutch press. This seems to be a token effort though as there is never any shortage of top-quality ‘Nederwiet’ in the coffee shops.

Social factors

The idea behind this policy of tolerance is to separate the sale of cannabis products from the trade in hard drugs, this is the greatest argument in favour of the coffee shop system. This idea has been a great success providing casual smokers with regulated, public outlets to buy soft drugs without the need to come into contact with the drug underworld.

This is in stark contrast to countries which operate a policy of prohibition where buyers only interested in cannabis must do business with unscrupulous criminal dealers who may also have other wares for sale.

Another advantage of the system is the almost total elimination of small-time, black market dealers in cannabis; unfortunately, this does not hold true for hard drug sales.