Drugs policy in the NetherlandsContinuity and change

Table of contentsConclusions and policy intentions
Estimate of the annual financial implications of the policy document on drugs
Annex IAnnex IIAnnex III1. Introduction and definition of problem1.1. The history of drugs policy in the Netherlands*
The use of cannabis and opiates has not fallen dramatically, let
alone been eradicated. For those who hoped that firm government
policy would achieve this the results are disappointing. However,
given previous international experience of tackling markets in
illegal products or services it seemed likely that government
intervention would have only a limited effect. It is partly for
this reason that the policy pursued in the Netherlands has always
had the more modest objective of bringing or keeping the use of
dangerous drugs, as a health and social problem, under control.
In terms of this objective drugs policy in the Netherlands has
achieved some success. The use of the drugs in question has not
become much more prevalent in the Netherlands than it was in the
1970s and from a medical point of view consumption has also not
become a more serious problem. The use of nicotine and alcohol
takes an incomparably higher toll on people’s health in the
Netherlands (as indeed it does in other parts of the Western
world) than the use of all the drugs covered by the Opium Act
Following the recommendations of the Working Party on Narcotics
(1972)*, the government of the day saw no reason to base its
policy on the idea that any use of the drugs concerned in itself
represented an unacceptable risk to society. Whether or not such
a risk existed would depend partly on the circumstances in which
the drugs were used and the extent of their use. It was in the
light of these factors that the prevention and control of the
risks of drug use to society and individuals were made the
primary objective of policy.
This drugs policy has never been amended*. It means that the
government’s role is to prevent young people in particular from
unthinkingly starting to use drugs without knowing enough about
them or under the influence of other people, and to make medical
and/or social assistance available to drug users with problems,
in order to alleviate their plight (harm reduction).
On the basis of scientific criteria, legislation in the
Netherlands distinguishes between drugs which present an
unacceptable risk to health and cannabis products, the risks
arising from which are considered less serious (i.e. between hard
and soft drugs). The Dutch view is that the interests which have
to be protected by the criminal law are primarily health
interests. In the Netherlands drugs policy is therefore
differentiated according to the seriousness of the potential
damage to health which may be caused by the use or abuse of the
drug in question.
As in many other countries, the use of drugs in itself is not an
offence in the Netherlands*. Users of hard drugs are regarded
as patients rather than criminals. Accordingly, a comprehensive,
differentiated set of preventive measures and care facilities has
been established. The judicial authorities have always followed
the principle that drug addicts should undergo medical treatment
rather than serve a custodial sentence. Despite the sometimes
disappointing results of treatment and/or the recidivism that
occurs, this standpoint has been firmly adhered to and new ways
of putting it into practice have constantly been sought.
Dutch policy on drug addicts aims to limit the risks and damage
caused by drugs and so to ensure the integration of drug users
in society. Prevention, out-patient care and residential care are
all in the hands of experts who work within professionally
managed organisations. The Netherlands spends approximately NLG
160 million per annum on the care of addicts (including clinics
and out-patient care). This is a large figure compared with what
other countries spend. The treatment concerned is not aimed
exclusively at ensuring the total abstinence of all addicts (i.e.
that all ex-addicts keep away from drugs altogether); the
intention as far as certain closely defined target groups are
concerned is to improve their medical condition and the way they
function in society. This can be achieved, for example, by
providing good medical care, by providing methadone, by operating
needle exchange systems and by providing various kinds of day and
night reception centres.
As elsewhere, however, drugs policy in the Netherlands is also
aimed at raising the threshold for the use of hard drugs as much
as possible by the strict use of the criminal law. In the
Netherlands as elsewhere the purchase of hard drugs is illegal
and the detection of criminal organisations involved in
trafficking in any drugs (hard or soft) has for many years been
a top priority of the Dutch criminal investigation authorities.
The considerable efforts made by the investigation and
surveillance services are apparent, for example, from the large
quantities of drugs which have been seized (cf. section 5.2). The
main elements of the policy are thus in line with international
models. Production and trafficking are dealt with severely under
the criminal law, in accordance with the UN Single Convention.
Each year the Public Prosecutions Department deals with an
average of 10,000 cases involving infringements of the Opium Act.
The work involved in the detection and prosecution of offenders
imposes considerable burdens on the police and the judiciary. In
monetary terms NLG 270 million a year is spent on tackling drug
trafficking. At least a further NLG 370 million is spent tackling
the crime committed by drug addicts (often property offences).
The capacity of the Dutch prison system has been increased in the
last ten years from five thousand to twelve thousand places. It
is no exaggeration to say that efforts to curb drug trafficking
using the criminal law are the most important reason for the
increase in the prison population.
While the Netherlands government regards the use of soft drugs
as risky, the control strategy is more differentiated than that
for hard drugs because the risks are less serious. As in a number
of states in the United States and certain other places, the
possession of a small quantity of soft drugs for personal use has
been decriminalised; that is to say that it is classified as a
summary offence rather than an indictable offence. The
legislation thus emphasises that the use of the criminal law to
tackle the use of soft drugs should not result in the
stigmatisation and social marginalisation of users.
Dutch policy on the use of cannabis is based on the assumption
that people are more likely to make the transition from soft to
hard drugs as a result of social factors than because of
physiological ones. If young adults wish to use soft drugs – and
experience has shown that many do – the Netherlands believes that
it is better that they should do so in a setting in which they
are not exposed to the criminal subculture surrounding hard
drugs. Tolerating relatively easy access to quantities of soft
drugs for personal use is intended to keep the consumer markets
for soft and hard drugs separate, thus creating a social barrier
to the transition from soft to hard drugs.
After a while the practical result of this principle was that the
judicial authorities came to tolerate the sale of soft drugs in
youth clubs by bona fide house dealers. This was followed by the
establishment of “coffee shops”, where soft drugs are sold
commercially to people who have reached the age of majority.
In almost all countries which suffer from drug problems the
police and judicial authorities are forced to set priorities in
the detection and prosecution of offenders who have committed
drug-related crimes. Large-scale, cross-border trafficking in
hard drugs has the highest priority everywhere, the lowest being
assigned to small-scale trafficking in and the possession of soft
drugs. This system of priorities is shared, for example, by large
parts of the United States of America, Germany, the United
Kingdom and France. Only rarely are people still prosecuted in
these countries for the possession of small quantities of soft
drugs. To all intents and purposes the possession of a few
grammes for personal use is no longer an offence there.
Germany, for example, in accordance with the case law of the
Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe (9 March 1994) a person
will no longer be prosecuted on the grounds of having committed
an indictable offence if he or she is found to be in possession
of a quantity of cannabis deemed to be for personal use. Soft
drugs are bought and sold and used on a large scale in and near
places of entertainment frequented by young people in the big
cities in all the above-mentioned countries. Soft drugs are
readily available to young people in towns and cities all over
the Western world*. As stated
above, to protect these users from
criminal circles, small-scale trafficking in “soft” drugs which
meets certain strict criteria is also given such low priority as
regards detection and prosecution that essentially no action is
taken against it in the Netherlands. In other places too the
buying and selling of small quantities of soft drugs is allowed
to go on more or less unhindered (in neighbouring German Länder
for example) but, in accordance with national principles of
criminal procedure this low priority is set out in the
Netherlands in detailed published guidelines from the Public
Prosecutions Department.
This official policy of tolerating soft
drugs does not mean that the Netherlands has a more lenient, let
alone a more positive attitude to the use of soft drugs; rather
it is based on the consideration that tolerating the sale of soft
drugs under clear conditions helps prevent the use by young
people of more dangerous drugs. The Netherlands’ policy on coffee
shops is also based on the idea of harm reduction.
1.2. Current situation and evaluation
In general, it
can be assumed that the less illegal the use of a drug is, the
more complete the picture will be which the authorities and
researchers have of such use. As stated previously, the use of
soft drugs was decriminalised in the Netherlands in the 1970s.
It is true that the use of hard drugs does involve some
illegality but care is easy to obtain throughout the Netherlands.
Care agencies assume that they have regular contact with at least
two-thirds of all drug addicts. As a result, the authorities in
the Netherlands has a much better picture of the extent and
nature of drug use than do those in other countries.
If one considers the available statistics on the use of drugs in
various countries against this background, the following picture
The extent and nature of the use of soft drugs in the
Netherlands does not differ from the pattern in other Western
countries*. In recent years use has
once again been considerably
higher in other countries (including the United States) than in
the Netherlands. This is also true as far as use among minors is
concerned*. The decriminalisation
which took place in the 1970s
did not lead to an increase in the use of soft drugs among young
people then either. The Dutch objective of protecting young
adults who wish to use soft drugs at a certain stage in their
lives from the world of hard drugs has also proved to be a
realistic one. Only a very small proportion of the young people
who use soft drugs make the transition to hard drugs.
The view
held by some that the use of cannabis products alone causes a
physiological or psychological need to use hard drugs as well –
what is known as the stepping stone theory – has been belied by
actual developments in the Netherlands*.
Dutch young people who
use soft drugs are perfectly well aware of the greater dangers
of using hard drugs such as heroin and have no great desire to
experiment with them. In the Netherlands the percentage of soft
drugs users who also go on to use hard drugs is relatively low.
In the light of these findings the stepping stone theory should
be regarded as one of the many myths in circulation about the use
of drugs, though one which under certain circumstances could
become a self-fulfilling prophecy: by treating the use of
cannabis products and hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine in
the same way may in fact make it more likely that cannabis-
smokers will come into contact with hard drugs. Moreover,
equating the one with the other undermines the credibility of the
information provided about drugs to young people.
No matter how much opinions on drugs policy may vary, there is
a broad consensus on the ultimate criterion according to which
the effectiveness of any national drugs policy should be
measured. This is of course the number of hard drug addicts,
especially the number of hard drug users under the age of 21, and
changes in those numbers.
Tabel 1 provides an overview of the estimated number of hard drug
addicts in various countries.
International comparative prevalence figures on hard drug addicts Numberof Addicts
Per 1000 ofpopulation
United Kingdom
Sources: Bosman and Van Es (1993); Bless, Korf,
Freeman, Urban drug policies in Europe 1993 (1993);
WHO regional office for Europe, European summary on
drug abuse, first report: 1985-1990 (1992); Commis-
sion of the European Communities, Second Report on
drug demand reduction in the European Community
(1992); Bossong (1994); Van Cauwenberghe et al. 1993
Various experts estimate that there are about 25,000 hard drug
addicts in the Netherlands*. This is equivalent
to 0.16 percent of the population. As stated above, this estimate is
reliable, partly because in the Netherlands care agencies manage
to maintain contact with a relatively high proportion of drug
It is not possible to make a clear comparison with
estimated numbers of hard drug addicts in other European
countries because of methodological uncertainties but it is
likely that the “dark number” is higher in certain other
countries, where care agencies reach fewer addicts, than it is
in the Netherlands. The estimates which do exist, however,
suggest that the number of hard drug addicts per 100,000
inhabitants in the Netherlands is low in comparison with the
European average of 2.7 and indeed considerably lower than in
France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, for
example. Annex I contains an overview of the estimated numbers
of drug addicts in a number of European countries, according to
a number of sources. All estimates suggest that the number of
addicts in the Netherlands is relatively low.
What is
particularly pleasing is that in the Netherlands the number of
heroin users under the age of 21 is relatively low, even among
vulnerable groups, and has continued to fall in recent years*.
Nor has the use of cheaper forms of cocaine made any real inroads
as was feared a few years ago on account of developments in the
United States and elsewhere*.
Increases in the numbers of young users are probably partly
prevented by the “loser” image which has come to be attached to
heroin addicts. The presence of older addicts who are in a
serious state of degeneration in some socially disadvantaged
neighbourhoods constitutes compelling propaganda against the use
of heroin. The lack of repressive action by the police against
addicts purely on account of their drug use and the ease with
which they can obtain the substitute methadone prevent the
lifestyle of addicts being seen by young people as an expression
of social or cultural rebellion.
The number of fatalities resulting from drugs overdoses in the
Netherlands is small. According to a report by the United
Nations, 42 people died in the Netherlands from drugs-related
causes in 1991. The figure for Belgium was 82, Denmark 188,
France 411, Germany 2,125, Italy 1,382, the United Kingdom 307
and for Spain 479. In the United States there were 5,830 such
deaths*. The number of deaths from drugs
per 100,000 of the
population is thus at least twice as high in other countries as
it is in the Netherlands and here, unlike in other parts of the
world, it is not rising.
The Netherlands also has a relatively small number of people
suffering from AIDS among its drug addicts. In southern European
countries in particular, the percentage of drug users who are
infected is considerably higher. The accessibility of care
services, including needle exchange systems, and the broad public
information campaigns which have been conducted, have resulted
in considerable risk reductions in intravenous drug use. The
proportion of drug addicts in the total HIV positive population
is relatively small*. Research has shown
that almost 60% of
heroin-addicted prostitutes now use condoms, as against 20% in
1986*. This also has the effect of helping to prevent the
spread of AIDS outside high risk groups.
The Netherlands thus also compares favourably with neighbouring
countries as regards mortality and morbidity among addicts. The
harm reduction policy, including the large-scale methadone
programmes and needle exchange systems, which was started in the
Netherlands in the 1970s, has been relatively successful. It has
also helped limit the spread of the AIDS epidemic.
All in all, it may be legitimately concluded that the
Netherlands’ policy on drugs has had some practical success in
health terms.
1.3. Complications and new trends
Firstly, a small proportion of hard drug addicts cause a
considerable nuisance to their fellow citizens. They commit a
large number of property offences, in order to obtain the money
to buy drugs. Contrary to expectations, the fact that methadone
is easily obtainable as a substitute has scarcely improved the
situation at all. Approximately twenty percent of addicts have
an extremely unconventional lifestyle, in which living on the
streets, multiple drug use and crime form mutually reinforcing
elements*. The sale of drugs, drug-related
crime and certain
types of anti-social behaviour by addicts, such as throwing away
used needles in public places, mean that the tolerance levels of
residents in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the big
cities in particular are chronically exceeded. In some cases this
has resulted in residents taking the law into their own hands by,
for instance, removing drug addicts from their neighbourhood by
force (and/or closing the street to French drug tourists).
Of course, the use of drugs can never excuse damage and nuisance
to other people. The government must set limits to the
criminality of and nuisance caused by some addicts, irrespective
of the objectives of its drugs policy. Partly because the size
of the target group makes it a manageable one – about 5,000
addicts indulge in extremely anti-social behaviour – the
government regards it as its duty to achieve results in this area
in the short term and thus to provide some prospect of a
permanent solution to this problem.
The residents of some municipalities have also complained about
the nuisance caused by the presence of coffee shops, such as the
attraction of large numbers of noisy visitors (including some
from abroad) indulging in anti-social behaviour*.
The nuisance
caused by coffee shops is different from that caused by the hard
drugs scene. In part it is the same as that caused by catering
establishments in general, but in some municipalities residents
living near coffee shops are subjected to excessive nuisance,
partly because of drug tourists from abroad. There is no
justification at all for this. These undesirable side-effects of
the policy on coffee shops are undermining public support for the
policy and for this reason too they must be eliminated. This is
particularly true in the case of nuisance caused by bars licensed
to sell alcohol where, in contravention of the local authority
policy on catering establishments, cannabis is also sold. Strong
measures will also have to be taken against coffee shops where
illegal activities are conducted, such as trafficking in hard
drugs, arms trading or handling stolen goods. The limits to
official toleration must be more stringent.
The second complication is the rise of criminal organisations
involved in the supply and sale of drugs. Although by definition
there are no exact figures as regards such organisations, there
is no doubt that professional criminals involved to some extent
or mainly in drug trafficking have been able considerably to
expand their activities over the last ten years, both
internationally and in the Netherlands. It is estimated that
worldwide profits of some 500 billion guilders are made from drug
trafficking each year*. Estimates of
the annual turnover of
hard and soft drugs in the Netherlands vary somewhat. It appears
that the estimate of NLG 5.5 billion per year made in the policy
document “Georganiseerde criminaliteit: dreigingsbeeld en plan
van aanpak” (Organised Crime: Analysis of the Threat and Plan of
Approach) (Parliamentary papers II 1992-93, 22838, no. 1) should
now be regarded as a minimum estimate. More up-to-date estimates
are of NLG 10 billion*.
The increasing economic
importance of
organised crime is also evident from the fact that in 1994 2,600
reports were made by financial institutions to the Unusual
Transactions Disclosures Office (“Meldpunt Ongebruikelijke
Transacties”) which were then passed on to the judicial
authorities as “suspect”. About half of these suspicious
transactions were related to drug trafficking.
The increasing activity and economic power of what are in many
cases international criminal organisations are a threat to
democracy and the rule of law and naturally evoke a response from
the government, for instance in the form of greater powers and
extra resources for the police and the judicial authorities. The
banks and relevant professions are also brought in to help in the
prevention and detection of money laundering. The amounts of
money involved have reached such enormous proportions that the
integrity of certain parts of the economy is increasingly being
put to the test. One factor which complicates policy is the fact
that money movements pay less and less heed to national
The scope of measures taken under the criminal law and of
preventive action is gradually increasing. This development
inevitably means that companies and individuals are asked to make
sacrifices, in the form of additional burdens and limitations to
civil rights and freedoms, in the public interest. In order to
protect themselves from this joint offensive, criminal
organisations in turn attempt to corrupt police officers, members
of the judiciary and bank staff, as well as those in the
professions. This then leads to the introduction or tightening
up of codes of ethics. The vicious circle which has arisen around
drug trafficking imposes ever greater costs on society. In some
parts of the United States prison costs are such a burden on the
government budget that other public provisions, such as
education, are at risk.
According to some critics the cost of
drugs policy is no longer in any way proportional to the benefits
it produces. Looked at in this light, the parliamentary inquiry
which is currently being conducted into such issues as the
admissibility of the detection methods used in investigating
criminal organisations is also concerned with certain
controversial side-effects of the policy on drug trafficking.
The third complication is the effect Dutch policy has in other
countries. The sometimes fierce criticism of that policy from
foreign governments is in part due to an inadequate understanding
of what is going on. This means that the background to and
objectives and actual effects of the Netherlands’ policy on drugs
must be communicated more effectively to an international
audience. Criticism also arises on account of fundamentally
different views on the role of government as regards the use of
substances which may pose risks by adult members of society. Such
differences are also revealed in the policies of European
governments in respect of the regulation of markets in alcohol
and cigarettes. There are also differences of opinion as regards
the medical risks of certain drugs.
The Netherlands’ view that
cannabis products entail less serious health risks than hard
drugs and thus require a different approach, is not even shared
by all the countries of the European Union. Recent reports from
abroad by authoritative experts on drugs support the distinction
made in Dutch law between soft and hard drugs*.
based on views about the health risks for which no support can
any longer be found in the scientific literature can of course
not be grounds for amending Dutch policy. The response should
rather be exchange programmes involving scientists and government
The ideological nature of some foreign criticism should not be
allowed to conceal the fact that the Dutch policy does entail
problems which affect other countries. The Netherlands and the
Dutch are indisputably responsible for a more than proportional
share of trafficking in certain drugs.
The police estimate that
there are about a hundred criminal organisations active in the
Netherlands, the vast majority of which are involved in drug
trafficking*. Residents of the Netherlands of foreign origin,
who maintain close links with criminal organisations in their
country of origin, are heavily over-represented in those criminal
organisations engaged in trafficking in hard drugs. Organisations
comprising primarily residents of Dutch origin traffic mainly in
soft drugs. Supplying the home market forms only a small part of
the activities of these organisations. They are also involved in
the transit of soft drugs through the Netherlands and in
international trafficking. Lastly, the Netherlands is an
important country of production for amphetamines and ecstasy.
Part of the reason for the Netherlands’ involvement in drug
trafficking stems from the country’s geographical position. The
Netherlands is the main gateway to Europe for a great many goods.
Moreover, partly because of its cosmopolitan atmosphere,
Amsterdam in particular is an international meeting place. The
use of the existing infrastructure for drug trafficking cannot
entirely be prevented, as was pointed out in 1985 in the policy
document on society and crime (Samenleving en Criminaliteit).
Netherlands government puts a great deal of effort into the
detection and prosecution of international drug trafficking via
Dutch ports and Schiphol airport. In the years ahead there will
be greater participation in international investigations, partly
as a result of the establishment of a national investigation
team. However, given the volume and speed of the flow of goods,
it will never be possible to make the port of Rotterdam, for
example, completely free of drugs, any more than any other
international port.
The governments of some neighbouring countries are concerned
about the cross-border effects of Dutch policy. The bones of
contention are in particular the relatively low prices at which
it has been possible to buy certain hard drugs in the Netherlands
in recent years (though the same is now also true in Belgium),
and the export of supplies of soft drugs bought in coffee shops
in the Netherlands.
The lower prices on the illegal heroin market cannot simply be
attributed to Dutch policy on production and supply. Contrary to
what is sometimes believed abroad, considerable efforts go into
the detection of trafficking in hard drugs in the Netherlands,
as explained above, and those convicted of this offence are
punished severely. The rapid expansion of Dutch prison capacity
bears witness to this. The crucial factor is the massive supply
of hard drugs on the international market, as has been confirmed
by regular reports from the UN. The consumer market price is in
part determined by local demand for certain drugs. As in a number
of other countries, so in the Netherlands the popularity of
heroin has declined quite considerably recently, while at the
same time the existing population of older addicts is supplied
on a large scale with substitute substances such as methadone.
It may be assumed that the falling demand for heroin has pushed
prices down. This is not to deny that the low prices do attract
foreigners seeking out hard drugs; for that reason, among others,
they are a cause for concern. Detection efforts in respect of
hard drugs in particular, including ecstasy, must be stepped up.
Policy intentions in this regard are discussed in detail in
chapter five of the present policy document.
It is undeniable that in municipalities along the borders the
coffee shops do attract foreign customers. Where countries have
different policies on the sale of strong drink or other goods,
such as weapons, there is also cross-border traffic specifically
geared to those goods. While differences in policy exist such
“smuggling” cannot entirely be prevented. Now that it has been
decided in the framework of the Schengen Agreement that existing
differences between the states concerned as regards their drug
policies will be respected, these side-effects must to a certain
extent be accepted.
However, under the Schengen Agreement the
Netherlands government took upon itself the obligation to do all
it could to combat the undesirable international side-effects in
the implementation of its own policy*.
The Netherlands government may be expected
to do everything within its power to
keep the export of soft drugs bought in coffee shops to a
minimum. The Netherlands’ neighbours have every right to call it
to account in this regard.
1.4. Principles of future policy
The policy also needs to be amended in line with the constantly
changing circumstances as regards both supply and demand in the
various drugs markets. Changes in the composition and social
background of user groups and the arrival of new drugs mean that
new measures are required. The stabilisation of the heroin addict
population in the Netherlands now means that care for addicts
must be directed at older clients with serious physical and
psychological problems. As has already been said, the popularity
of heroin among young people has declined enormously; at the same
time, the number of people addicted to primary cocaine appears
still to be small. “Designer drugs”, such as ecstasy, on the
other hand, are increasing in popularity, both at events such as
raves and elsewhere. These drugs require a different approach.
Finally, the attitude of the general public to drug addicts also
appears to have changed. On the one hand, people have to some
extent got used to certain forms of drug use; on the other, drug
addiction is less and less regarded as an excuse for causing
damage or harm to others. People are now less tolerant of crime,
nuisance and other anti-social behaviour from drug addicts.
Precisely because drugs policy in the Netherlands is so pragmatic
we must be very open, critical and flexible in our response to
these changes. Appropriate – that is to say realistic – answers
must be found to the complications which have arisen and to the
new trends.
As part of the debate in the Netherlands on the complications
arising from drugs policy, it has been suggested by various
commentators that the sale of both soft and hard drugs should be
largely or even totally legalised*.
The government has
consulted on the desirability and feasibility of the legalisation
proposals and has reached the following conclusions.
In accordance with Dutch views on the harmfulness of the various
forms of drugs, a distinction should be made between the
legalisation of hard drugs and that of soft drugs. The
harmfulness of hard drugs means that there must be overwhelming
objections to any policy amendment which might result in an
increase in the number of users, on account of the health risks.
Those in favour of legalisation are too inclined to ignore this
objection. Although we cannot be certain about this, there must
be a danger that legalisation, irrespective of how it was carried
out, would increase the availability of the drugs in question and
act as a signal to young people that such drugs were not so
harmful after all. There would then be a risk that more young
people would start to use hard drugs and so become addicted.…