synthetic drug

Drug policy of the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, the national drug policy has officially four major objectives:

  • To prevent drug use and to treat and rehabilitate drug users.
  • To reduce harm to users.
  • To diminish public nuisance by drug users (the disturbance of public order and safety in the neighborhood).
  • To combat the production and trafficking of drugs.

It is a pragmatic policy. Most policymakers in the Netherlands believe that if a problem has proved to be unsolvable, it is better to try controlling it instead of continuing to enforce laws with mixed results. By contrast, most other countries take the point of view that drugs are detrimental to society and must therefore be outlawed, even when such policies fail to eliminate drug use. This has caused friction between the Netherlands and other countries about the policy for cannabis, most notably with France and Germany. As of 2004, Belgium seems to be moving toward the Dutch model and a few local German legislators are calling for experiments based on the Dutch model. Switzerland has had long and heated parliamentary debates about whether to follow the Dutch model, most recently deciding against it in 2004; currently a ballot initiative is in the works on the question. In the last few years certain strains of cannabis with higher concentrations of THC and drug tourism have challenged the current policy and led to a re-examination of the current approach.

Netherlands has a high anti-drug related public expenditure, the second highest drug related public expenditure per capita of all countries in EU (after Sweden). 75% is law enforcement expenditures including police, army, law courts, prisons, customs and finance guards. 25% is health and social care expenditures including treatment, harm reduction, health research and educational including prevention and social affairs interventions.

Public health

Large-scale dealing, production, import and export are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, even if this does not supply end users or coffeeshops with more than the allowed amounts. Exactly how coffeeshops get their supplies is rarely investigated, however. What is certain is that coffeeshops do sell cannabis that comes from countries where it is illegal. The average concentration of THC in the cannabis sold in coffeeshops has increased from 9% 1998 to 18% 2005. One of the reasons is plant breeding and use of greenhouse technology for illegal growing of cannabis in Netherlands. The soft drug policy is not without flaws. It fails to address the issue of supply, which can promote problems of its own, such as the involvement of other drugs. Creating a highly controlled, legal production chain for cannabis to combat this problem has been proposed by a number of Dutch politicians over the last few years. By the end of 2005, the majority of the Dutch Parliament was in favour of an experiment with controlled cultivation and production of cannabis. The recent minister of Justice Piet Hein Donner announced in June 2007 that cultivation of cannabis shall continue to be illegal.


Cannabis remains a controlled substance in the Netherlands and both possession and production for personal use are still misdemeanors, punishable by fine. Coffee shops are also technically illegal according to the statutes but, as has been said, are flourishing nonetheless.

However, a policy of non-enforcement has led to a situation where reliance upon non-enforcement has become common, and because of this the courts have ruled against the government when individual cases were prosecuted.

This is because the Dutch Ministry of Justice applies a gedoogbeleid (condonance policy) with regard to soft drugs: an official set of guidelines telling public prosecutors under which circumstances offenders should not be prosecuted. This is a more official version of the common practice in other countries, in which law enforcement sets priorities as to which offenses are important enough to spend limited resources on.

Proponents of gedoogbeleid argue that such a policy offers more consistency in legal protection in practice, than without it. Opponents of the Dutch drug policy either call for full legalization, or argue that laws should penalize morally wrong or decadent behavior, whether this is enforceable or not.

In the Dutch courts, however, it has long been determined that the institutionalized non-enforcement of statutes with well defined limits constitutes de facto decriminalization. The statutes are kept on the books mainly due to international pressure and in adherence with international treaties.

Drug law enforcement

Importing and exporting of any classified drug is a serious offence. The penalty can run up to 12 to 16 years if it is hard drug trade, maximum 4 years for import or export of large quantities of cannabis. It is prohibited to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of any drug that affects driving ability in such an extent that you are unable to drive properly. (Section 8 of the 1994 Road Traffic Act section 1). The Dutch police have the right to do a drug test if they suspect this, for example on anybody involved in a traffic accident. Causing an accident, which inflicted bodily harm, under influence of any drug is seen as a crime that may be punished with up to 3 years in prison (9 years in case of a fatal accident). Suspension of driving license is also normal in such a case (maximum 5 years). Not so well known abroad is that Schiphol, a large international airport near Amsterdam, since long practices a zero tolerance policy for drugs for passengers and airplanes. In 2006 was 20 769 drug crimes registered by public prosecutes, 4,392 persons received an unconditional prison sentence The prevalence rate for imprisonment for drug crimes is on abut the same level as in Sweden, with a Zero tolerance policy for drug crimes.

Despite the high priority given by the Dutch government to fighting illegal drug trafficking, the Netherlands continue to be an important transit point for drugs entering Europe, a major producer and leading distributor of cannabis, heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and other synthetic drugs, and a medium consumer of illicit drugs. The country has also become a major exporter of illicit temazepam of the "jelly" variety, trafficking it to the United Kingdom and other European nations. The Netherlands' special synthetic drug unit, set up in 1997 to coordinate the fight against designer drugs, appears to be successful. The government has intensified cooperation with neighbouring countries and stepped up border controls. In recent years, it also introduced so-called 100% checks and bodyscans at Schiphol Airport on incoming flights from Dutch overseas territories Aruba and Netherlands Antilles to prevent importing cocaine by means of swallowing balloons by mules.

Although drug use, as opposed to trafficking, is seen primarily as a public health issue, responsibility for drug policy is shared by both the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sports, and the Ministry of Justice.

The Netherlands spends more than €130 million annually on facilities for addicts, of which about fifty percent goes to drug addicts. The Netherlands has extensive demand reduction programs, reaching about ninety percent of the country's 25,000 to 28,000 hard drug users. The number of hard drug addicts has stabilized in the past few years and their average age has risen to 38 years, which is generally seen as a positive trend.

On 27 November 2003, the Dutch Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner announced that his government was considering rules under which coffeeshops would only be allowed to sell soft drugs to Dutch residents in order to satisfy both European neighbors' concerns about the influx of drugs from the Netherlands, as well as those of Netherlands border town residents unhappy with the influx of "drug tourists" from elsewhere in Europe. As of 2006 nothing has come of this proposal and Dutch coffeehouses still enjoy robust foreign patronage. The proposal is unlikely to come to part in practice since refusing citizens of neighboring nations any services of the sort conflicts with the European Union's policies surrounding the four freedoms.

The results of drug policy in Netherlands

In the Netherlands 9.7% of young boys consume soft drugs once a month, comparable to the level in Italy (10.9%) and Germany (9.9%) and less than in the UK (15.8%) and Spain (16.4%), but much higher than in, for example, Sweden (3%), Finland or Greece. Dutch rates of drug use are lower than U.S. rates in every category. The monthly prevalence of drugs other than cannabis among young people (15-24) was 4% in 2004, that was above the average (3%) of 15 compared countries in EU. However, seemingly few transcends to becoming problem drug users (0.3%), well below the average (0.52%) of the same compared countries.

The reported number of deaths linked to the use of drugs in the Netherlands, as a proportion of the entire population, is lower than the EU average. The Dutch government is able to support approximately 90% of help seeking addicts with detoxification programs. Treatment demand is rising.

Criminal investigations into more serious forms of organized crime mainly involve drugs (72%). Most of these are investigations of hard drug crime (specifically cocaine and synthetic drugs) although the number of soft drug cases is rising and currently accounts for 41% of criminal investigations.

Implications of international law

The Netherlands is a party to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. The 1961 convention prohibits cultivation and trade of naturally-occurring drugs such as cannabis; the 1971 treaty bans the manufacture and trafficking of synthetic drugs such as barbiturates and amphetamines; and the 1988 convention requires states to criminalize illicit drug possession:
Subject to its constitutional principles and the basic concepts of its legal system, each Party shall adopt such measures as may be necessary to establish as a criminal offence under its domestic law, when committed intentionally, the possession, purchase or cultivation of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances for personal consumption contrary to the provisions of the 1961 Convention, the 1961 Convention as amended or the 1971 Convention.
The International Narcotics Control Board typically interprets this provision to mean that states must prosecute drug possession offenses. The conventions clearly state that controlled substances are to be restricted to scientific and medical uses. However, Cindy Fazey, former Chief of Demand Reduction for the United Nations Drug Control Programme, believes that the treaties have enough ambiguities and loopholes to allow some room to maneuver. In her report entitled The Mechanics and Dynamics of the UN System for International Drug Control, she notes:
Many countries have now decided not to use the full weight of criminal sanctions against people who are in possession of drugs that are for their personal consumption. The Conventions say that there must be an offence under domestic criminal law, it does not say that the law has to be enforced, or that when it is what sanctions should apply. . . . Despite such grey areas latitude is by no means unlimited. The centrality of the principle of limiting narcotic and psychotropic drugs for medical and scientific purposes leaves no room for the legal possibility of recreational use. . . . Nations may currently be pushing the boundaries of the international system, but the pursuit of any action to formally legalize non-medical and non-scientific drug use would require either treaty revision or a complete or partial withdrawal from the current regime.
The Dutch policy of keeping anti-drug laws on the books while limiting enforcement of certain offenses is carefully designed to reduce harm while still complying with the letter of international drug control treaties. This is necessary in order to avoid criticism from the International Narcotics Board, which historically has taken a dim view of any moves to relax official drug policy. In their annual report, the Board has criticised many governments, including Canada, for permitting the medicinal use of cannabis, Australia for providing injecting rooms and the United Kingdom for proposing to downgrade the classification of cannabis, which it has since done (although this change was reversed by the home secretary on 7th May, 2008)

Recent developments

In 2005, Gerd Leers, mayor of the border city of Maastricht, criticised the current policy as inconsistent, by recording a song with the Dutch punk rock band De Heideroosjes. By allowing possession and retail sales of cannabis, but not cultivation or wholesale, the government creates numerous problems of crime and public safety, he alleges, and therefore he would like to switch to either legalising and regulating production, or to the full repression that his party (CDA) officially advocates. The latter suggestion has widely been interpreted as rhetorical. Leers's comments have garnered support from other local authorities and put the cultivation issue back on the agenda.

By 2009, 27 coffee shops selling cannabis in Rotterdam, all within 200 meters from schools, must close down. This is nearly half of the coffeeshops that currently operate within its municipality. This is due to a new policy of city mayor Ivo Opstelten and the town council. The higher levels of the active ingredient in cannabis in Netherlands create a growing opposition against the traditional Dutch view of cannabis as a relatively innocent soft drug. Closing of coffeeshops is not unique for Rotterdam. Many other towns have done the same in the last 10 years.

The municipality of Utrecht imposed in 2008 a Zero Tolerance Policy to all events like the big dance party Trance Energy held in Jaarbeurs. However, such zero-tolerance policy at dance parties are now becoming common in the Netherlands and are even stricter in cities like Arnhem.

Bill banning "Magic mushrooms"

On April 25, 2008, the Dutch government, backed by a majority of members of parliament, decided to ban cultivation and use of all hallucinogenic or "magic mushrooms". Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen proposed a three day cooling period in which clients would be informed three days before actually procuring the mushrooms and if they would still like to go through with it they could pick up their spores from the smart shop. The ban is referred as a new retreat from liberal drug policies. This followed a number of (deadly) incidents in which people (though mostly tourists) were involved. These deaths were not directly caused by the use of the drug per se, but by deadly accidents occurring while under the influence of magic mushrooms.

As of the Autumn 2008 the bill banning all magic mushrooms has not yet passed since there were still 188 questions which had to be asked and answered in the Dutch Parliament. The process should begin after the 2008 summer recess

Supply control

The recent increase in cocaine trafficking in has focused attention on the Caribbean area. Since early 2003, a special law court with prison facilities has been operational at Schiphol airport. Since the beginning of 2005, there has been 100 % control of all flights from key countries in the Caribbean. In 2004, an average 290 drug couriers per month were arrested, decreasing to 80 per month by early 2006.

See also



General references

  • Bewley-Taylor, David R. and Fazey, Cindy S. J.: The Mechanics and Dynamics of the UN System for International Drug Control, 14 March 2003.
  • Duncan, David F. and Nicholson, Thomas: Dutch drug policy: A model for America? Journal of Health and Social Policy, 1997, 8(3), 1-15.

External links


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