Cannabis policy in the Netherlands

Moving forwards not backwards
Transform Policy Brief
March 2014

transform-netherlands-cannabisMisunderstandings and misreporting of actual and proposed changes to Dutch cannabis policy in 2011 have led some opponents of cannabis reform to suggest the country is retreating from its longstanding and pragmatic policy of tolerating the possession, use and sale of cannabis. This is not the case. In reality, most of the more regressive measures have either not been implemented, have been subsequently abandoned, or have had only marginal impacts.

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Additionally, there is growing public support for wider, progressive reform, including a system of legal cannabis regulation similar to that adopted in Uruguay, and efforts are underway by numerous municipalities to establish such models of production and supply.

The Dutch approach to cannabis policy has always been fundamentally pragmatic, rather than politically or ideologically driven. When the ‘new’ approach was formally adopted in 1976, it was motivated primarily by a desire to separate the market for cannabis, deemed to be relatively lowrisk, from the market for other, more risky illegal drugs. The policy effectively decriminalised the personal possession and use of cannabis for adults, but unlike other decriminalisation approaches that have been implemented elsewhere, it additionally tolerated the existence of outlets for low-volume cannabis sales, outlets that eventually became the well-known Dutch ‘coffee shops’.

The coffee shops are allowed to operate under strict licensing conditions, which include age-access restrictions, a ban on sales of other drugs (including alcohol), and controls on the shops’ external appearance, signage and marketing. The approach has been broadly successful. However, the system has not been without its problems. In some southern border towns, there have been issues caused by large numbers of visitors from neighbouring countries travelling to the coffee shops. More significantly, the quirks of the system’s evolution within an international legal framework that strictly forbids legal production, has led to the paradox that while sales are tolerated and de facto legalised, the coffee shops are still supplied via an illegal production system – often involving organised criminal groups.

Opponents of cannabis law reform have tried to paint the Dutch experience in a negative light, but have largely failed as the overwhelmingly positive outcomes speak for themselves. However, when a new conservative government decided to impose a range of new restrictions on the coffee shops in 2011, this was seized upon by critics as evidence that the Dutch ‘cannabis experiment’ was being ended due to its failure. This briefing challenges this narrative by setting out the facts on the key issues.