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November 22nd, 2016
Health • Justice

The Dutch policy on marijuana use - continuity and change

The liberalisation of the use of marijuana in the Netherlands was initiated in 1976 as a radical response to the social problems of drug abuse. It was founded on the recommendations of the country's Baan Commission, published in 1972, and has proved effective and popular with Dutch citizens. In 1995, the Baan Commission published a further report, Continuity and Change, which proposed minor modifications to the policy, without affecting the liberal stance of the Dutch government.

The initiative

In 1976, the Dutch government began to operate a more liberal drug policy as part of which it modified its approach to marijuana. "Since 1976, authorities across the Netherlands have chosen to openly ignore that cannabis use is illegal... and they prosecute no one in possession of less than five grams of marijuana for personal use. The policy, called gedoogbeleid, is known as the “Dutch model,” and it's why hundreds of “coffee shops” sprung up across Amsterdam and the Netherlands."[3]

The main objective of the policy was to safeguard the health of individual users, the people around them and society as a whole. A further aim of the Dutch model is to tackle drug-related crime and to maintain public order. "Priority is given to vulnerable groups, and to young people in particular."[4]

The law enforcement focus is on large-scale dealing rather than personal use. "It accepts the inevitability of some drug use in society and ... works towards reducing the harm experienced by drug users. Significantly, the Netherlands has long adopted a semi-regulated cannabis market in an effort to separate the markets between cannabis and other drugs. Under the “separation of the markets” policy, the Netherlands has decriminalized cannabis use, possession, and small-scale sale of cannabis via coffee shops. Cultivation and supply of cannabis remain illegal."[5]

In 1995, the Dutch government published a report entitled Drugs Policy in the Netherlands:  Continuity and Change. "The report ... notes three negative implications that need to be addressed: the nuisance caused by hard and soft drug users; the increasing presence of organised crime in the Netherlands; and the effect of Dutch policy on other countries"[6] (the drug tourist effect whereby foreign tourists take legally acquired cannabis back to their country of domicile). This informed a slight hardening of the policy in those three areas.

The challenge

In the postwar period, the social attitudes in the Netherlands to the use of marijuana and its legalisation gradually changed, with an acceptance that use of the drug was widespread and was likely to remain so. "Following WWII, marijuana use became detectable in the Netherlands and a 1953 amendment to the Opium Act added cannabis to the list of illegal substances. Prosecution for marijuana offences began, but experts and official agencies soon started to call for a reconsideration of prosecution policies. The excessive use of force by Amsterdam police in response to student riots in 1966 made law enforcement highly sensitive to public opinion and led to more relaxed attitudes towards social issues such as the peace movement and drug use. Policies de-emphasising marijuana possession arrests resulted." [1]

This social evolution had its effect on the Dutch government and led it to rethink its policies and legislation. "The changing views of law enforcement with respect to some drugs coincided with a new drug problem in the early 1970s: a violently competitive heroin market. The Dutch government established a Working Party on Drugs which came to be known as the Baan Commission. Its recommendations largely determined the course of the Netherlands' drug policy and resulted in an overhaul of the Opium Act in 1976." [2]

The public impact

The financial impact of the policy has been largely beneficial. "In terms of money, the Netherlands still spends a good amount in drug enforcement policies, but this money is spent differently, compared with other nations. But it is important to note that Coffee Shops generate about €400 million in taxes, which is specifically invested in addiction prevention and treatment. Some estimations agree that further money can be saved with updated regulations, an additional €160 million, regulations that at the same time could increase tax generation for up to €260 million. This means that Netherlands' drug policies have not increased consumption, [but have] reduced HIV infections, reduced social stigmas, and saved lots of money."[7]

The reforms following the Continuity and Change Report reinforced the Dutch drug usage situation, which appears to be moderate and under control. "According to one comparison, in 2005 there were 269 marijuana possession arrests for every 100,000 citizens in the United States, 206 in the United Kingdom, 225 in France, and just 19 in the Netherlands... About 25.7 percent of Dutch citizens reported having used marijuana at least once, which is on par with the European average. In the comparatively strict United Kingdom, the rate is 30.2 percent and in the United States it is a whopping 41.9 percent."[8]

Nearly 40 years after the introduction of gedoogbeleid, and nearly 20 after the Report, enforcement of drug laws is relatively light. "Although the overall number of Opium Act cases dealt with by the police, public prosecutor, and courts increased in 2012, arrests and convictions for possession of illicit drugs are very low in the Netherlands compared to other European nations. In 2012, 5,773 cannabis cultivation sites were dismantled, 42 production locations for synthetic drugs were dismantled, 66 storage locations were discovered, and 68 incidents of dumping of the chemicals involved in synthetic drugs production were reported."[9]

Stakeholder engagement

The 1995 Continuity and Change policy document was sponsored by the Minister of Justice; the Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport; and the Secretary of State for the Interior. The other stakeholders involved in designing the modification of the drug policy included the police, customs officers, and criminal justice authorities, and all the actors are engaged in achieving the goals identified in the 1995 Report. The following examples indicate how the policy on the international drug trade has been enforced:

  • "Customs and police officers and members of the Royal Military Police have formed a special drugs squad at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport to combat drug smuggling;
  • "A special scanner is used to screen containers held in terminals in the port of Rotterdam. Similar equipment were purchased for the port of Amsterdam and Schiphol Airport. In combination with the successful risk analysis system developed by the Dutch customs authorities, the scanner has increased the chance of finding drugs concealed in containers. Close cooperation has been established between the customs authorities of the EU member states;
  • "The police and criminal justice authorities in the Netherlands, France and Belgium are working closely together to counter drug tourism and drug couriers on the route between Lille, Antwerp, Hazeldonk and Rotterdam;
  • "Agreements have been concluded with Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg on police cooperation, and with France on cooperation between the customs authorities. Exchanges are organized between French and Dutch police and customs officers and public prosecutors; Dutch drug liaison officers are stationed in a number of countries and police officers from other countries have been posted to embassies in the Netherlands to act in the same capacity;
  • "A special team has been formed to tackle the production of and trade in synthetic drugs."[10]

Political commitment

The drug policy in the Netherlands has been a government initiative. The Dutch government has been actively engaged in designing the policy and achieving the desired goals in response to changes in society and the 1972 and 1995 reports of the Baan Commission on drug policy. In 1995, the Dutch government reframed a few aspects of the policy in light of the recommendations of the Baan Commission.

The Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport played important roles in implementing the policy. "The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport coordinates overall drug policy and treatment and prevention policy. The Ministry of Justice is charged with law enforcement related to the judicial aspects of drugs."[11]

The Dutch government's continued liberal approach to drug use, particularly relating to soft drugs such as marijuana, is largely popular with Dutch citizens. An indication of its political commitment is that it maintains the policy in the face of a general lack of enthusiasm among the international community, with a few exceptions such as Uruguay and the American states of Colorado and Washington State.

Public confidence

The majority of the public suport the government's continued liberal policy on drugs, although many would like to see it go further. "Public support for the coffee shops has increased throughout their existence. The most recent polling, carried out in December 2013, shows a significant majority of the Dutch population would like to go further, with 65% supporting the kind of legal cannabis regulation implemented in Uruguay."[12]

Where they show less confidence in the government is in its more recent, harder line on coffee shops. "Polling in 2012 revealed that 60% of the public thought the wietpas scheme (a system that would effectively make the coffee shops private clubs with a maximum of 2,000 adult members who must be residents of the Netherlands) should be stopped, and that 80% believed it would increase the illegal trade."[13]

The approach to drug-related public nuisance has also met with scepticism. "In a more recent survey of Dutch judges and prosecutors, 10 63.9% said they did not consider the residence requirement to be an effective way of suppressing public disorder around coffee shops."[14]

Clarity of objectives

The overall objective of the Dutch government's policy safeguard the health of individual users, the people around them and society as a whole. A further aim of the Dutch model is to tackle drug-related crime and to maintain public order (see The Initiative above). These were based on the report of the 1972 Baan Commission. The 1972 ... recommendations still form the basis of this drugs policy in which the government's role is seen as preventing people - particularly young people - from starting to use drugs without knowing enough about them, while providing treatment for those who develop drug problems."[15]

There were minor changes in the policy in 1995 after the 1995 recommendations of Baan Commission. "The report begins by noting that the Netherlands has always attempted a pragmatic approach to drug use. In tackling markets in illegal products throughout the world, government intervention has historically proven to have a limited effect. Thus, the modest objective in Holland is to keep the use of dangerous drugs, as a health and social problem, under control."[16] The 1995 Report then went on to recommend reforms in three areas - the nuisance caused by hard and soft drug users; the increasing presence of organised crime in the Netherlands; and the effect of Dutch policy on other countries - which the government has effected.

Strength of evidence

Policymakers have based their reforms on reliable sources, principally the Baan Commission reports of 1972 and 1995, and the work of institutions such as the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). "Since 1995, the EMCDDA has been collecting and disseminating statistics on the nature of the illicit drug problem in different EU member states; it is largely on these efforts that the data presented above is based. This data collected by the EMCDDA is not perfect; cross-national comparative research conducted on this scale is hampered by different research methods and cultures."[17]

Policymakers consulted stakeholders during the design phase of their 1995 reforms in order to make the policy effective, including taking evidence from foreign judiciaries in order to frame policies with an international perspective. "Consultations have been initiated involving the judicial authorities in Belgium and Northern France and members of the Dutch Public Prosecutions Department, with a view to tackling the problem in a more structural manner; proper cooperation between the police and investigation services is a primary concern. There has been an exchange of judicial officials and police officers between France and the Netherlands, which has improved cooperation between the police and judiciary in the two countries."[18]


The legal feasibility of the policy derives from the 1976 Opium Act, and the decriminalisation of marijuana use and small-scale possession and the legalisation of "coffee shops". The modified approach towards coffee shops does not have public support, so may not be feasible to out into effect.

The policy is financially feasible in that there have been reductions in enforcement requirements and, as drug usage is moderate and relatively safe, there has been modest cost in terms of health and justice and social policy. "It has been demonstrated that the more or less free sale of quantities of soft drugs for personal use in the Netherlands has not led to rise in levels of use significantly higher than in countries which pursue a highly repressive policy in this regard."[19]

The modified policy to control the international aspects of drug use has required some additional cost (see Stakeholder Engagement above). "Within the parameters set by international agreements, policy on drugs in the Netherlands will continue to be primarily aimed at prevention and harm reduction. On the basis of a careful evaluation of the results which have been achieved and of the current problems, proposals will be set out in this policy document for changes to policy."[20]


The policy has been founded on a well-organised and well-managed state commission. "A State Commission was... established in 1968 by the Under Secretary of Health. This commission contained some members of the Hulsman Commission, as well as officials from the Ministry of Justice, the Amsterdam Chief of Police, and additional psychiatrists and sociologists. In 1970, Pieter Baan, the Chief Inspector of Mental Health, assumed the chairmanship of the commission and a final report was presented in 1972."[21]

A task force was set up to implement the recommendations of the Baan Commission, comprising "not only the government departments concerned and the four big cities but also the Association of Netherlands Municipalities (VNG)... The task force will be responsible for arranging for the implementation not only of the provisions on safety contained in the agreements with the big cities but also of the policy intentions and agreements on combating nuisance laid down in the present policy document.”[22]

There was a mechanism set by the policymakers to prevent the drug trafficking and money laundering. There were many actors whose roles were defined to manage the policy such as customs and police officers, Working Party on Drugs etc. Also there were many skilled managers and experts present in the team to help the policymakers in decision-making. "The Opium Act is designed to tackle drug trafficking directly, a number of measures have been to counter the problem indirectly, such as legislation which makes it easier to investigate and confiscate the proceeds of drug trafficking and prevent money laundering."[23]


Policymakers were monitoring the progress of the policy by making the legislation tools. They designed the Opium Act to tackle drug trafficking directly. "The Opium Act is designed to tackle drug trafficking directly, a number of measures have been to counter the problem indirectly, such as legislation which makes it easier to investigate and confiscate the proceeds of drug trafficking and prevent money laundering."[24]

Different local agencies were also set up by the Dutch government who were monitoring the subsidies given to the citizens. "Since 1995, legislation has been in force which enables monitoring of the trade in precursors (i.e. substances which are not in themselves illegal but which may be used in the manufacture of drugs."[25]

Policymakers use a specific national organisation to monitor the progress of the policy. "The national focal point in the Netherlands is integrated within the Nationale Drug Monitor, established in 1999 by the Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport in order to evaluate and review registration and survey research data at the national level, and to report these data to the Lower Chamber of Parliament, concerned ministries and other stakeholders inside and outside the country.[26] The Netherlands occupies a leading position internationally in research and monitoring, as is evident from the 1995 report of the EMCDDA.


The government bodies (such as the Ministry of Justice) cooperated effectively and executed their part to make the policy successful. "The Ministry of Justice is responsible for matters falling within the scope of criminal law and the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport for policy on prevention and care services and for coordinating drugs policy as a whole. The Ministry of the Interior is responsible for matters relating to local government and the police. An integrated approach to drugs policy has been adopted at local level too."[27]

There was strong alignment of interests within municipalities for the policy. "Forty-one municipalities within the Netherlands have endorsed a manifesto proposing the regulation of cannabis production, and 25 of the 38 largest municipalities have applied to the Ministry of Justice for permission to experiment with various forms of authorized cannabis production and wholesale supply.[28]"

Small units like The Synthetic Drugs Unit along with the police played a vital role in implementation of the policy. "The judiciary and the police gear up joint efforts for an annual € 18.6 million (2003-2006). The Synthetic Drugs Unit (USD) has a pivotal role in the implementation of these efforts and international contacts with countries that are important in the trafficking of ecstasy are intensified."[29]


Drugs Policy in the Netherlands, 1997, Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, The Netherlands


Drugs policy in the Netherlands: Continuity and change, Tweede Kamer, 1994-1995, 24077, nrs. 2-3


Mixed Messages from Europe on Drug Policy Reform: The Cases of Sweden and the Netherlands, Caroline Chatwin, Foreign Policy at Brookings University, 2016


National Drug Policy - The Netherlands: Prepared For The Senate Special Committee On Illegal Drugs, Benjamin Dolin, 2001, Law and Government Division


Report to the EMCDDA: The Netherlands Drug Situation 2002, Reitox National Focal Point, Nationale Drug Monitor


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