The trade in sex and drugs

22nd July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Expatica reports on the ins and outs of Holland's drug and prostitution policy.


When living in The Netherlands, one will inevitably be exposed to the country’s world-famous and often condemned tolerance for drugs and prostitution. It is true, as any high school student will tell you, that cannabis and prostitutes are easily acquired throughout the country.

But despite what those teenaged travel agents may tell you, Holland is not a hedonistic hotbed of fornication and brain cell annihilation. There’s a time and a place for everything, and if you’re to gel smoothly with the liberal Dutch culture, there are some things you ought to know.

What’s the (drug) deal?

Contrary to popular belief, cannabis is not legal in The Netherlands. Back in the 1970s, the Dutch government decided the crime created by the illegal drug trade was far worse than the threat to society and public health from the drugs themselves, and so marijuana was decriminalised — but never officially legalised. Without the fear of arrest and prosecution, several cannabis-catering “coffeeshops” began to creep up around the country, and in 1996 the first official licences were issued.

For the average Joe, it is still criminal to import, export, sell, produce or process any kind of drug, but certain licensed coffeeshops displaying the white and green sign are allowed to sell marijuana and hash.

Dutch law dictates that no more than five grams of cannabis can be sold to a single patron in a day, and this limit is strictly enforced, so don’t go asking for more. It used to be 30, but pressure from the uptight French put an end to that. You can smoke in the bar or at home, but smoking cannabis in public is discouraged — although the most severe punishment you’re likely to endure is a nasty look from an old lady.

Hard drugs are still very much illegal, although this won’t stop dealers from approaching you on the street and proposing a transaction. Tempting as it may be, we recommend you keep walking.

Other drugs classified as neither hard nor soft, known paradoxically as “smart” drugs, can be obtained in a number of legitimate and psychedelically decorated shops. Wares vary from so-called “magic” mushrooms to ginseng pick-me-uppers and herbal XTC. Each purchase in one of these shops is accompanied by a thick pamphlet explaining the effects of the drug you’re about to ingest, and what to do if you’re not enjoying it or if you experience a bad trip. ‘Nuff said.

You don’t have to be beautiful…

Prostitution in The Netherlands is a legitimate business. With the exception of some of the available escort services, prostitutes are generally self-employed. They pay income tax, receive regular government-funded health check-ups, make their own hours, and can supply or deny service to whomever they choose.

As with the drug trade, the basic concept behind all this naughtiness is that sexually transmitted diseases and crime associated with an illegal sex trade are a greater threat to society than the prostitution. For those who are interested, prostitutes are easy to find, and patrons can be relatively comfortable that the object of their desire isn’t public enemy number one at the Center for Disease Control, thanks in part to a universal pro-condom policy.

On the flip side, prostitutes stick to the designated part of town, and are easily avoided by the easily offended. The system works, and everybody’s happy.

The most public display of prostitution is in Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District. Here, as you may have heard, narrow alleys are lined with near-naked women undulating behind double glass. Red lighting in the slender passageways makes you feel like you should be hurrying. If addressed politely, the women are friendly, and will usually be glad to explain their services and rates if you ask. The bidding starts at about fifty guilders, and this is worth about 15 minutes of what will probably not be the most romantic experience of your life.

Keep in mind that these women don’t give anything away for free, including their image, so if you value your camera and your fingers, you’ll refrain from taking a snapshot for the blokes back home.

The Red Light District is actually quite safe, and newcomers shouldn’t be afraid to have a look — or whatever. The area is regularly patrolled by the politie, and just about everyone you’ll see there is going somewhere, so they’re unlikely to hassle you.

Whether going just for a look or for something else, we recommend you go late at night, after nine or ten. Although at least a few windows are occupied 24 hours a day, the scenery is appreciably more, um, scenic later in the evening. Something about supply and demand. 

Subject: Dutch sex and drugs trade

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