The Netherlands reviews its tolerant approach to drug policy

15 July 2009

Limit the sale of cannabis to local users, reconsider the distinction between hard and soft drugs, raise the legal age for drinking alcohol from 16 to 18 and appoint a drug czar to overlook policies. These are the most striking recommendations published on Thursday by a committee chaired by Christian democrat Wim van de Donk.

The Dutch government had asked the committee to lay the groundwork for a new memorandum on Dutch drug policies to be drafted this fall. The report is in line with repressive measures already taken in recent years, but the committee explicitly says it does not want to end the so-called 'gedoogbeleid' (tolerance policy), nor does it want to legalise the cannabis trade completely.

The three parties in the Dutch coalition government - Christian democrats, Labour and ChristenUnie (orthodox Christian) - agree that the present drugs policy needs to be revised. The country has seen a dramatic increase in drug tourism and exports of Dutch-grown cannabis have soared. That is not just causing problems at home, it also gives offence to other EU member states unhappy with the Dutch policy.

But the coalition parties don't see eye to eye on which direction to take.
The current drugs policy is ambiguous at best: cannabis users are not prosecuted and coffee shops are licensed, but the cultivation and wholesale of cannabis are still prohibited. The Labour party has advocated including the production and wholesale of cannabis in the tolerance policy, but the Christian democrats favour complete prohibition.

Original purpose

Despite its international reputation as a Mecca for legal drugs, the use or possession of weed or hash is in fact still a misdemeanour in the Netherlands. But since a 1976 revision of the Opium Law separated hard drugs (e.g. cocaine, xtc) and soft drugs (cannabis), personal use of the latter is no longer prosecuted and the cafes that sell them are tolerated as well.

Dutch tolerance

# The use, possession or sale of cannabis have never been legalised in the Netherlands. Possession and production for personal use are considered misdeameanours. However, possesion of cannabis for personal use is not prosecuted up to five grammes or five cannabis plants.

# Coffee shops are allowed to stock a maximum of 500 grammes of cannabis.

# Large-scale production, export or import of cannabis are illegal, and should always prosecuted.

# In other words: coffee shop owners can legally sell cannabis but they cannot legally buy it.

The Van de Donk committee now wants the coffee shops to go back to their original purpose: they should be limited in number and size and cater to registered local users rather than the "large-scale facilities that supply consumers from neighbouring countries" they have become. This should reduce the nuisance caused by tourists who cross the German and Belgian borders to buy drugs.

Part of the motivation for the Dutch tolerance policy was to take soft drugs out of the criminal sphere by separating them from hard drugs. But as law professor Cyrille Fijnaut, a member of the Van de Donk committee, noted in an article published last March, this has never happened. Even if coffeeshops are legal, the production and trade are still in the hands of criminals, if only because supplying the coffeeshops is by definition illegal.


The Van de Donk committee doesn't propose changing that equation. It does suggest a limited experiment with regulating the supply line for coffee shops. It also wants to raise the maximum amount of cannabis a coffee shop owner can legally have in stock; it is currently capped at 500 grammes.The committee also questions the wisdom of the distinction between soft and drugs, and suggest that more research needs to be done on the subject.

The criminal character of a large part of the cannabis trade and the high values of the psychiactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in Dutch weed, could be reasons to revise the distinction, the committee said. However, experts have said that THC levels have gone down again in the past four years and research suggest that users adjust the amounts they smoke to the strength of the weed.

Committee suggestions

# limit the sale of cannabis to local users

# experiment with legal production and supply of members-only coffee shops

# order more research, possibly rethink distinction between soft and hard drugs

# appoint a drug czar to coordinate all initiatives

A substantial part of the report is dedicated to young people and how to protect them from the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol . Van de Donk wants to raise the legal age for drinking alcohol from 16 to 18, which is also the legal age for smoking cannabis.

Statistics actually show a decline in the number of Dutch teenagers using soft drugs, from 14 percent in 1996 to 10 percent today. Of the Dutch population between 15 and 64 less than 5 percent smokes drugs on a regular basis.

Drug czar

It is unclear if this is a result of the tougher approach recently taken to soft drugs. Although no drastic measures have been taken at the national level - apart from a ban on hallucinogenic 'magic' mushrooms last year - local authorities have clamped down on the cultivation, sale and use of soft drugs.

In Amsterdam and Rotterdam, coffee shops are banned within a 250 meters radius of high schools. Border towns Bergen op Zoom and Roosendaal closed all their eight coffee shops to put a stop to the flood of Belgian drug tourists crossing the border to buy supplies. The largest coffee shop in the country, in the town of Terneuzen, was shut down in 2008 because it exceeded the allowed amounts of marijuana bought and sold. Its owner is being prosecuted for running a criminal organisation. The southern city of Maastricht is transforming its coffee shops in to members-only clubs.
Between 1997 and 2007 the number of coffee shops went down from 846 to 702.

The diversity of local initiatives calls for a clear national direction, the Van de Donk report says. Too many authorities are currently involved in developing and enforcing policies, which are related to issues of justice, health care, public safety, education and even foreign policy. The report calls for one drug czar to overlook all these areas. "The problem justifies a more binding ambition, based on political leadership, which also extends to connect us with our neighbours and the US", according to Van de Donk.