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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Are drugs legal in the Netherlands?

A: Contrary to popular belief, drugs are not legal in the Netherlands. But the Dutch have developed a unique system which allows for the sale of small quantities of cannabis (5 grams - lowered from 30 grams in 1995) in so-called "coffeehouses." By international treaty, cannabis is illegal, but the Dutch have laid out specific rules allowing for cannabis sales. In 1995, there were an estimated 1,200 - 1,500 "coffee-shops" selling cannabis in the Netherlands.(1)

A key reason for the policy was to separate the market in what the Dutch call the "hard drugs" from the "soft drugs." When all drugs are illegal and punished with equal severity (as in the United States where marijuana is a schedule I drug along with heroin) drug dealers sell all kinds of drugs. Large scale distribution of marijuana is punished in the U.S. with mandatory 5 and 10-year sentences, up to life imprisonment, like distribution of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. In the Netherlands, "hard drugs," like cocaine or heroin, are not available for legal purchase in coffee-shops or anywhere else. Trafficking in such drugs is subject to enforcement, prosecution and long sentences. The Dutch report no increase in the number of opiate addicts. In fact, a 1996 estimate claims the current number of opiate addicts to be 5,000 -10,000 less than in 1980.(2) The "coffee-shop" policy still has problems and remains controversial. Because there is no legal market, cannabis is not subject to taxation and suppliers are still criminals.

In the past decade, the Dutch have increased their enforcement of coffeehouse regulations, closing many down for various violations. Recently, Dutch residents have put pressure on the government to control rowdy behavior and excessive noise in and around coffeehouses. In addition, as borders within Europe have opened, neighboring countries regularly express their concern about the ease with which cannabis is brought into their countries.

The cannabis market in the Netherlands is large. Estimates in the early and mid-1990s of annual sales (exact numbers are difficult because of the technical illegality of the trade) ranged from $US 360 million to $US 1.1 billion. One commentator estimated in 1996 that tourists purchased about $US 180 million worth of cannabis.(3)

The Dutch try to get drug addicts into treatment but do not use the criminal justice system to harass users. Prosecution for simple possession of heroin or cocaine - with no other criminal conduct - is uncommon. For decades, government-run needle exchange programs have kept the hepatitis and, later, HIV infection rates very low.


1 MacCoun, Robert J. and Peter Reuter, Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, & Places, Cambridge University Press: 2001, p 241.

2 Swierstra, Koert The Development of Contemporary Drug Problems (chapter 6) from Between Prohibition and Legalization; The Dutch Experiment in Drug Policy by Leuw and Marshall (eds.), Kugler Publications: 1996, p 98

3 MacCoun and Reuter, p 242.