Home Living in the Netherlands Government, Law & Administration The soft drug policy of the Netherlands
Last update on June 09, 2021
Written by Natasha Gunn

Although many are under the impression that soft drugs are legal in the Netherlands, this isn’t actually the case. Here’s a guide to the soft drug policy of the Netherlands.

The number one drug used in the Netherlands is alcohol and what is worrying is that consumers are getting younger.

Alcohol is no. 1 drug

“Alcohol use starts at between 11 and 14 years, and between the ages of 13 and 16 pupils start to drink on a weekly basis,” says Roel Kerssemakers, senior prevention worker at the Jellinek, an institute for the treatment of alcohol, drug and gambling problems, serving Amsterdam, Gooi and Vechtstreek.

“If you compare alcohol with cannabis and look at pupils of 16 years you can say that 77 percent used alcohol last month, while 15.6 percent used cannabis,” he says.

According to a report from the European Monitoring Centre of Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), between 1997 and 2005, the use of alcohol in the young and very young has increased, whereas the percentage last year of users of cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines remained fairly stable among the general population in the Netherlands of 15 – 64 years.

Audray Wijks, a prevention worker at the Parnassia, which works on drug prevention and care in The Hague, Delft, Gouda, Leiden and Zoetermeer, believes that a combination of individualism, a loss of both control and social communities is to blame for the increase in alcohol consumption in the young.

We live in a harder, faster world

“The world is faster and harder, which means you need to be tough to go with the flow. People have access via computers to a ‘virtual’ life and parents have less control over their children’s ‘actual’ lives,” says Wijks, who also sees the breakdown of family networks as a contributing factor.

How the Dutch are tackling alchol abuse in the young

Addressing the issue, this year the Netherlands caught up with the majority of EU countries through proposing a partial or complete ban on alcohol advertising on radio and TV before 9 pm. Also, in June the Dutch cabinet agreed to a proposal to allow municipalities to decide whether to increase the drinking age for ‘weak’ alcoholic drinks from 16 to 18 and the government is looking into penalising underage individuals for buying alcohol or being in possession of it. Under current legislation only the shop and café owners can be prosecuted.

After alcohol, Cannabis is still the number one drug of choice in the Netherlands, followed by XTC.

Although the age when school-goers start using cannabis was stable between 1996 and 2003 and lies between 14 and 16, Kerssemakers says that the “General opinion about cannabis and the risks involved are more realistic now. Cannabis has risks: there is a risk of addiction and smoking is bad for your lungs. Now there is a lot of information about the risks which are also addressed in drug education.”

This awareness is perhaps reflected by an increase in the numbers of young people seeking help to deal with cannabis addiction. Parents and children also need to be aware that Dutch cannabis (nederwiet) is getting stronger, says Wijks.

Studies have shown nederwiet to have between 14 and 20 times more tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the active ingredient which makes users high – than imported varieties. The average THC concentration in Dutch home-grown cannabis peaked in 2003 (20 percent) and levelled off in 2004 and 2005 (18 percent in both years).

“Of school goers between 12 and 18, nine percent said they used cannabis last month. Of the same group, 20 percent, which is almost two percent of the total group, smokes more than 10 times a month,” says Kerssemakers.

The Netherlands has low percentage of drugs users compared to other countries

The number of problematic long-term users of heroine/cocaine/crack/amphetamines per 1000 inhabitants in the Netherlands is 2.2 to 4.3. In the UK the figures are 8.9 to 9.7, Spain: 7.1 to 9.9, Austria: 5.4 to 6.1, Sweden 4.5 (Sweden has a high percentage of amphetamine users), France: 3.8 to 4.8, and Germany: 1.2 to 3.0.

Of the Dutch population aged 15 to 64, 3.3 percent used cannabis last month, reveals Kerssemakers. “If you compare this figure with other countries you see that in Spain 8 percent of the population between 15 and 64 used cannabis last month, in Austria 4 percent of the same population, in Ireland 3 percent, in Belgium 3 percent, in Norway and Finland 2 percent, and in the US 10 to 14 percent,” he says.

XTC used mostly by ‘clubbers’

“In the same population (15 – 64), 0.3 percent used XTC last month, and among pupils aged between 12 and 18, 1.2 percent used XTC last month. When asked ‘did you use XTC last night’, 8.2 percent of the clubbers said ‘yes’,” reports Kerssemakers.

Netherlands main producer of XTC

It is estimated that about 70 percent of the confiscated ecstasy tablets in the world are produced in the Netherlands: that is between 112 and 224 million tablets. The organisation of the trafficking of amphetamines and XTC within Europe is controlled by Dutch criminal organisations, in collaboration with criminal organisations in the destination countries (Huisman 2005).

Making informed choices

Key to the lower drug usage figures in the Netherlands is perhaps the preventive methods employed by the Dutch.

The Netherlands has chosen the skill-oriented method to educate people about drug usage, an approach which involves making choices, solving conflicts and employing resilience; such as dealing with emotions and resisting group pressure.

This approach has proved to be the most effective says Kerssemakers. “We inform people in a neutral and objective way about the risks, based on scientific facts and not on all kind of prejudices. Also we accept that people have to make their own choices,” he says.

The other preventive methods are fear-oriented (warning) and objective-oriented (giving the facts).

The sale of cannabis in the Netherlands is illegal, yet the Dutch turn a blind eye to coffee shops selling cannabis, if they adhere to certain criteria: no advertising, no sale of hard drugs, no sales to persons under 18, no causing of public nuisance and no sales of quantities of more than five grams per transaction. Coffee shops are also forbidden to sell alcohol or have more than 500 grams in stock and –in some cities–a minimum distance to a school or to the Dutch border is required.

“The difference between using and dealing has to do with the quantity of drugs you possess. If you have less than 5 grams of cannabis, 1/2 a gram of hard drugs or one tablet, you have a quantity which is considered as a quantity for own use. If you possess more than that you are considered a dealer,” says Kerssemakers.

Will ‘magic’ mushrooms be banned?

Rather than outlawing mushrooms Kerssemakers predicts that the government will shortly outline a new policy, which will involve introducing new rules for smartshops such as making it illegal to sell mushrooms people under 18, making it obligatory for the people working in smartshops to follow a course, and obliging the outlets to give good information about the products they sell.

Drug-testing services don’t encourage use

Both Kerssemakers and Wijks confirm that drug testing services, such as those offered by the Jellinek and Parnassia, inform people as well as help keep track of the kinds of drugs being offered on the market. The existence of the service also perturbs producers from releasing dangerous substances onto the market.

In 2006, 80 percent of the tablets tested at the Jellinek contained XTC, while 6.7 percent of the tablets contained a completely different psychoactive substance. The average dose was 74 mg.

More information

You can find useful links to websites with information on drugs and addiction in English.