The Netherlands

In order to appreciate the Dutch approach to drug policy, certain characteristics of Dutch society must be kept in mind. The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated, urbanized countries in the world. It has a population of 15.5 million, occupying an area of no more than 41,526 km2. The Dutch firmly believe in the freedom of the individual, with the government playing no more than a background role in religious or moral issues. A cherished feature of Dutch society is the free and open discussion of such issues. A high value is attached to the well-being of society as a whole, as witness the extensive social security system and the fact that everyone has access to health care and education.

During the 1970’s a violent heroin market led the Dutch government to establish a drug policy working group which came to be known as the Baan Commission. Its recommendations largely determined the course of the Netherlands’ drug policy. The core features of the Dutch system as established by the Baan Commission are rooted in the concept of harm reduction, i.e., the minimization of the risks and hazards of drug use rather than the suppression of all drugs. Dutch drug policy gives priority to health care and prevention while, simultaneously, directing aggressive enforcement measures against organized crime.

A wide range of harm reduction interventions are in use in the Netherlands. Methadone maintenance is available on demand. In 1998, a number of Dutch cities started experimenting with prescribing heroin, in combination with methadone, on medical grounds. Approximately 750 addicts are involved in the comparison of treatment with methadone and treatment with methadone and heroin. The experiment is still ongoing and a comprehensive evaluation has yet to be published. To prevent HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C, syringe exchange programs were developed in the 1980s; today, 130 programs are operating in 60 Dutch cities and towns.

With respect to the supply side of the drug market, Dutch drug policy reflects the international repressive norm. On the demand side of the equation, however, a unique approach is evident. The Dutch policy recognizes that drug use may often just be a youthful indiscretion, but emphasizes compassion and treatment for those who develop drug use problems. Using this pragmatic approach, the government sets clear priorities based on the perceived risks of particular drugs. Public health is the overriding concern. Key elements of Dutch drug policy include:

  • the central aim is the prevention or alleviation of social and individual risks caused by drug use;
  • there must be a rational relation between those risks and policy measures;
  • a differentiation of policy measures must also take into account the risks of legal recreational and medical drugs;
  • repressive measures against drug trafficking (other than trafficking of cannabis) are a priority; and
  • the inadequacy of criminal law with respect to other aspects (i.e., apart from trafficking) of the drug problem is recognized.

A key aspect of Dutch drug policy is the notion of market separation. By classifying drugs according to the risks posed and then pursuing policies that serve to isolate each market, it is felt that users of soft drugs are less likely to come into contact with users of hard drugs. Thus, the theory goes, users of soft drugs are less likely to try hard drugs. Possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use has been decriminalized in the Netherlands. The sale of cannabis is technically an offence under the Opium Act, but prosecutorial guidelines provide that proceedings will only be instituted in certain situations. An operator or owner of a coffee shop (which is not permitted to sell alcohol) will avoid prosecution if he/she meets the following criteria:

  • no more than 5 grams per person may be sold in any one transaction;
  • no hard drugs may be sold;
  • drugs may not be advertised;
  • the coffee shop must not cause any nuisance;
  • no drugs can be sold to minors (under age 18), nor may minors enter the premises; and
  • the municipality has not ordered the establishment closed.

Separating the markets by allowing people to purchase soft drugs in a setting where they are not exposed to the criminal subculture surrounding hard drugs is intended to create a social barrier that prevents people experimenting with drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, drugs deemed an “unacceptable risk.” Decriminalization of the possession of soft drugs for personal use and the toleration of sales in controlled circumstances has not resulted in a worryingly high level of consumption among young people. The extent and nature of the use of soft drugs does not differ from the pattern in other Western countries. As for hard drugs, the number of addicts in the Netherlands is low compared with the rest of Europe and considerably lower than that in France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. Dutch rates of drug use are lower than U.S. rates in every category.