An insiders look at Drug Policy in Amsterdam

An insiders look at Drug Policy in Amsterdam

The Dutch government has had a policy of tolerance since the 1970’s, which allows people to buy and smoke cannabis. Licensed cannabis cafés, called “coffee shops”, are allowed to sell up to 5 grams of cannabis to each customer every day. With this policy, the Dutch government has managed to keep the sale of cannabis out of the black market. The contradiction in this policy has always been that cultivation remains illegal. A coffee shop is not allowed to have more than 500 grams of cannabis within its establishment and the government doesn’t want to know the source of the cannabis. Considering some shops sell more than 10 kilos a day and according to government reports the Dutch are exporting more than 500,000 kilos of cannabis every year, one might wonder where all this cannabis comes from. The sale of cannabis seeds in the Netherlands is legal and it’s easy to find a headshop online or in the city to buy everything you need to grow your own. In the Netherlands more than 6,000 illegal plantations get busted by the police each year while the average jail sentence for large scale cultivation of cannabis is four years.

Despite this policy of tolerance concerning the use of cannabis, or maybe because of it, the percentage in use among the population has always been quite low in the Netherlands. Growing up in the Netherlands, there comes a certain age when most kids get curious and might experiment with smoking cannabis, but because it is an accepted phenomenon, it appears that it is less popular to smoke than in many other countries. Although research shows that 47% of Dutch students have been in contact with cannabis, the average rate of cannabis smokers is pretty low. When looking at the annual prevalence of cannabis use as a percentage of the population aged 15-64, The Netherlands has much lower numbers than many other countries in Europe. In 2005, 5.4% of Dutch citizens used cannabis, while in the UK this was 6.6% and in the USA this was about 13% in 2010. When you look at a country like Portugal, where cannabis has been decriminalized, the percentage is about 3.6%.  Does this show us that the tougher the laws are the more popular the drugs become?

In the Netherlands there are more than 600 coffee shops serving customers with cannabis and in the south of the country more than 2.3 million foreigners from neighboring countries such as Belgium, Germany and France are visiting these shops. The government has now decided to only allow Dutch citizens to use the shops to buy cannabis. Beginning on the 1st of March of this year, Dutch citizens in the three southern provinces need to register themselves at their favorite coffee shop in order to obtain a so called “weed pass”, which allows them to purchase up to three grams of cannabis per day. As expected by critics of the new law, many dealers have appeared in the streets of the south and are selling cannabis to tourists as well as local smokers. Many Dutch smokers are not keen on being registered as a smoker and are buying cannabis from elsewhere or growing the plants themselves. Even though the sale of cannabis seeds is legal, growing plants for personal use is also not entirely legal. The Netherlands has had a policy of tolerance allowing every individual to grow 5 plants for personal use but this law was changed earlier this year. Now every individual can have 5 plants in a normal garden but as soon as there is any type of professional growing involved, it becomes illegal and the person can be prosecuted. It is not specified what is being meant by professional growing so it is left up to the discretion of the judge.

The majority of people in the Netherlands, including many political parties, are realizing that the new laws on cannabis are not the right way to go as there have been many problems in the south of the country. Several political parties believe it would be a better idea to regulate the growing of cannabis instead of criminalizing its use. In this way, the government would have greater control over the whole situation and could get a large amount of tax money from cultivators. In September there will be elections in the Netherlands and it is still unclear what kind of new parliament the country will have and if the new government will decide to implement the new law in the rest of the country as well, or even overturn the whole weed pass system. What is clear is that many tourists are not taking the risk and the coffee shops in Amsterdam are being flooded with eager smokers.

*Name has been changed for privacy purposes.