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Drugs Policy in the Netherlands banner

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Drugs Policy in the Netherlands

Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, The Netherlands, April 1997

The main aim of the drugs policy in the Netherlands is to protect the health of individual users, the people around them and society as a whole. Priority is given to vulnerable groups, and to young people in particular. Policy also aims to restrict both the demand and supply of drugs. Active policies on care and prevention are being pursued to reduce the demand for drugs, while a war is being waged on organised crime in an attempt to curb supplies. A third aim of policy is to tackle drug-related nuisance and to maintain public order. The Netherlands now has twenty years' experience of working with these policies on drugs.

Given the importance of an integrated approach, responsibility for drugs policy is borne by a number of ministries. The Ministry of Justice is responsible 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.

Dutch society

In order to appreciate the Dutch approach to the drugs problem, certain characteristics of Dutch society must be kept in mind. The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated, urbanised countries in the world. It has a population of 15.5 million, occupying an area of no more than 41,526 square kilometres. The Netherlands has a long history as a countyr of transit: Rotterdam is the largest seaport in the world, while the country has a highly developed transport sector. The Dutch firmly believe in the freedom of the individual, with the government playing no more than a background 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 wellbeing of society as a whole, as witness the extensive social security system and the fact that everyone has access to health care and education.

The basic priciples of the Opium Act

Regulations on drugs are laid down in the Opium Act. The Act draws a distinction between hard drugs, (e.g. heroin, cocaine and XTC) which pose an unacceptable hazard to health, and soft drugs (e.g. hashish and marijuana), whihc constitute a far less serious hazard. The possession of drugs is an offence. However, the possession of a small quantity of soft drugs for personal use is a minor offence.

Importing and exporting drugs are the most serious offences under the provisions of the Opium Act, although manufacturing, selling and attempting to import drugs are also offences. As in the case in other countries, the cultivation of hemp is prohibited, except for certain agricultural purposes (e.g. to form windbreaks, and for the production of rope). New legislation is currently being drafted to raise the maximum penalty for commercial hemp production from two to four years imprisonment.

On the principle that everything should be done to stop drug users from entering the criminal underworld where they would be out of reach of the institutions responsible for prevention and care, the use of drugs is not an offence.

Indictable offences and maximum penalties

The maximum penalty for importing or exporting hard drugs is 12 years imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 guilders. Anyone found in possession of a quantity of hard drugs for personal use is liable to a penalty of one year imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 guilders. The maximum penalty for importing or exporting soft drugs is four years imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 guilders.

Habitual offenders are liable to a maximum penalty of 16 years imprisonment and a fine of 1,000,000 guilders. Moreover, offenders may be deprived of any advantage gained from the offence.

Investigations and prosecutions policy

As in the case in many other countries, the expediency priciple is applied in Dutch policy on investigations and prosecutions. This means that the public prosecutor may decide not to institute prosecution proceedings if it is not in the public interest. The highest priority is given to the investigation and prosecution of international trafficking in drugs; the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use is accorded a much lower priority.

Anyone found in possession of less than 0.5 grammes of hard drugs will generally not be prosecuted, though the police will confiscate the drug and consult a care agency.

The expediency principle is applied to the sale of cannabis in coffee shops in order to seperate the users' markets for hard and soft drugs and keep young people who experiment with cannabis away from hard drugs.

The sale of small quantities of soft drugs in coffee shops (which are not allowed to sell alcohol) is therefore technically an offence, but prosecution proceedings are only instituted if the operator or owner of the shop does not meet the following criteria:

  • no more than five grammes 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 may be sold to minors (under the age of 18), nor may minors be admitted to the premises.
  • Th mayor may order a coffee shop closed.

While 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. Dutch banks, for instance, are obliged to report any unusaual financial transactions. 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).

International cooperation

Those factors which have made the Netherlands into an attractive transit country for legitimate traders unfortunately apply equally to traders in illegal products. The government is making every effort to counter the illicit use of the Dutch infrastructure. In March 1995 controls were abolished at the internal borders of the Schengen countries, i.e. the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, France, Spain and Portugal. As a result, controls at the external borders have been stepped up:

  • customs and police officers and members of the Royal Military Policy 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 will also be 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 astablished 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 organised 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.

Results of efforts to counter drug trafficking

In 1995 351 kg of heroin were confiscated. The Netherlands is not a major transit country for heroin and most consignments that are confiscated come through other European countries.

In 1995 4,851 kg of cocaine were confiscated - 23% of the total amount confiscated in the EU in that year. In 1994, 215 kg of amphetamines were confiscated, in addition to 143,000 pills containing other synthetic drugs (mainly MDMA, MDA and MDEA). 17 illegal laboratories for the production of synthetic drugs were dismantled in 1995, while a total of 50 were dismantled in the EU in the same year. In 1995 too, 549,337 hemp plants and 332 tonnes of cannabis were confiscated - 44% of the total amount confiscated in the EU that year. In 1994, 323 illegal hemp nurseries were dismantled. With these confiscations, the Netherlands occupies a leading position in the international war on drugs.

Safety and public order

Until 1995 the number of coffee shops increased, and some have given rise to considerable nuisance, while some have links with criminal organisations. For these reasons, the Dutch government has decided to tighten up controls.

Policy on coffee shops is largely decided at local level - by the local authorities, the police and the public prosecutions department. The municipalities have gained wider powers to tackle the problem of nuisance by limiting the number of coffee shops operating within their district. As a result, the past 18 months have witnessed an 11% drop in the total number of coffee shops. This vigorous policy will continue to be pursued until the number of coffee shops has reached the minimum at which the objective of separating the markets can be achieved.

Liveable conditions and safety are a high priority in the major cities. In the past four years, the Netherlands has invested an extra 60 million guilders in projects to tackle drug-related nuisance and in facilities for the treatment and rehabilitation of the addicts who cause it. Addicted offenders are now given the option of detoxification treatment or serving a prison sentence.

Drug tourism gives rise to serious nuisance, and efforts to counter it have been accorded a high priority. Agrrement has been reached with France on a simplified transfer procedure for drug tourists, while foreign tourists may be expelled from the country. One of the objectives of reducing the number of coffee shops and the quantity of cannabis that may be sold is to counter drug tourism. From time to time, investigations will be conducted targeting foreigners who export quantities for sale in their own countries.


The protection of the health of drug users is a major priority, and a wide range of facilities are available. The Netherlands spends more than 300 million guilders a year on facilities for addicts. Over half of this amount is spent on the drug problem. There are 12 clinics for the treatment of addicts, and their capacity has been increased, from 500 places in 1980 to 961 in 1995.

In the past ten years accessability of care services has improved considerably. These services now reach an estimated 75% of all addicts. their aim is to reach as many addicts as possible to assist them in efforts to rehabilitate, or to limit the risks caused by their drug habit. Social rehabilitation is an essential element.

to achieve these aims, an extensive network of services has been established. Methadone programmes enable addicts to lead reasonably normal lives without causing nuisance to their immediate environment, while needle exchange programmes prevent the transmission of diseases such as AIDS and hepatitus B through infected needles. The services also provide counselling.


Prevention plays an important role in Dutch drugs policy. Schools in particular are targeted in efforts to discourage drug use, while campaigns are conducted in the mass media to reach the broader public. In late 1996, a campaign was launched to counter the use of cannabis, while XTC will be the subject of a similar campaign in early 1997.

The objective of these campaigns is to discourage the use of cannabis and XTC. The use of XTC is particularly among young people attending raves and discos. In 1995, to prevent accidents occurring during such large-scale events, municipalities were issued with guidelines on ways of maintaining public order and safety and limiting health risks, which many now apply when issuing licences. As a result, far fewer accidents now occur during these events.

Results of public health policy

There were 2.4 drug-related deaths per million inhabitants in the Netherlands in 1995. In France this figure was 9.5, in Germany 20, in Sweden 23.5 and in Spain 27.1. According to the 1995 report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon, the Dutch figures are the lowest in Europe. The Dutch AIDS-prevention programme was equally successful. Europe-wide, an average of 32.9% of AIDS victims were intravenous drug-users. In the Netherlands, this percentage is as low as 10.5%. The number of addicts in the Netherlands has been stable - at 25,000 - for many years.

Expressed as a percentage of the population, this number is approximately the same as in Germany, Sweden and Belgium. There are very few young heroin addicts in the Netherlands, largely thanks to the policy of separating the users markets for hard drugs and soft drugs. The average age of heroin addicts is now 36.

In most EU countries, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Sweden and the Netherlands, the use of cannabis has increased in the past few years. A similar trend is, unfortunately, discernible with regard to synthetic drugs. Evidently, international youth culture has more influence on the use of these substances than government policies. International cooperation is therefore vital in tackling this problem.

Research and monitoring

Though Dutch policies in the field of health protection have been relatively successful, some adjustments are needed. the nature of the drugs problem is constantly changing and a ceaseless effort must therfore be made to seek the best means of limiting the damage drugs can cause to health. Monitoring (following and recording trends) as well as scientific research are therefore essential if an adequate response is to be given when new risks emerge.

The Netherlands occupies a leading position internationally in research and monitoring, as witness the 1995 report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon. A national drugs monitoring system will be set up in the course of 1997.

To supplement the European Monitoring Centre's work, a number of international comparative studies have recently been conducted to analyse the extent of the drugs problem and the policies and the policies pursued. Studies were published on the policies pusued on cannabis in the Caribbean, Germany, France and the United States, and these were compared with Dutch policy. A study was also conducted of policy on hard drugs in France. A bilateral study of the situation in Sweden and the Netherlands is currently under preparation.

An extensive study has been launched of the nature and extent of XTC use, the results of which will be published in the spring of 1997. The study will examine factors such as the pharmocological and toxicological effects of this drug, as well as its social and epidemiological impact.

Policies are continually amended in response to such studies.

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