Cannabis and Politics

23 November 2018

Dutch cannabis law explained

Is cannabis legal in The Netherlands and what should you know about Dutch cannabis law?

By Herbert M. Green

Just a friendly heads-up: Carrying and consuming weed in the Netherlands is not legal. Not in the strictest sense of the word. It’s just tolerated. How than, can you still light up a joint on the streets of most major cities? Why hasn’t it been legalized? It’s a complex situation that I will try to clear up in as few words as possible. So bear with me and read on.

Basic rule of thumb for tourists

Before I go into detail, let’s cover some of the basics. In the Netherlands, buying and consuming cannabis is tolerated, unless you are under the legal age to purchase it (18) or you’re in a designated ”Cannabis-free zone”. The same goes for cannabis related products like edibles. And it´s only tolerated as long as you’re not carrying more than 5 grams at a time. Don’t think you can circumvent this rule by hopping from shop to shop and buying a ton of weed piecemeal: If the cops bust you with more than the said amount on your person, you’ll be fined and your weed will be confiscated.

This sign means you are not allowed to consume cannabis in this public area

Now, that is basically all you really need to know as a cannabis-enthusiast visiting the Lowlands but that doesn’t explain the ambiguity of the situation. To understand the nuances of Dutch cannabis law we have to dig a little deeper.

Tolerated does not mean legal

You’re allowed to buy cannabis, we’ve covered that. Here is the kicker though; it is NOT, I repeat, not legal! It’s tolerated. In practical terms that is. Because in theory it is illegal to have even one gram of cannabis on your person. If by chance you’re searched by the police and they find any form of cannabis, they will have to confiscate it. They do need probable cause to search you though, or you have to have chanced into an area where they have the right to search you preventively. You will not, however, be fined or prosecuted. If you’re carrying more than 5 grams, you’ll be fined €75. If the police find 30 grams or more, the fine will be much higher and you will be prosecuted for intent to sell, which can mean jail time of up to a year.       

 

How about growing cannabis?

It is prohibited for anyone in the Netherlands to grow weed. Although quantities equal to or less than 5 plants are not considered grounds for prosecution, the plants will still be confiscated. If you grow more than that and/or use any additional equipment (e.g. lamps, fertilizer or hydroponics) you will be prosecuted for professional cultivation, and that could mean a maximum jail sentence of 4 years and/or a subsequent fine of € 67.000.  

“ If you ask any coffeeshop owner about their supply chain, they will say there isn’t one, that their inventory just magically appears behind the counter.”

What about the coffeeshops?

If nobody is allowed to grow cannabis and sell it to coffeeshops, even if those shops are fully licensed, how do coffeeshops get their inventory? Ah! Now we are getting down to the nitty-gritty. You see, under the ‘policy of tolerance’ coffeeshops are allowed to have a maximum inventory of 500 grams of product on hand at any one time. As you can imagine, this isn’t nearly enough for most coffeeshops, seeing they cater to hundreds of customers a day.

So how do coffeeshops keep up with demand? In short: They have to fly under the radar. Dutch politicians and the media call it “Achterdeur Problematiek” or the “Back Door Problem”. Essentially coffeeshops have to get their product from illegal growers, which more often than not, are in the hands of criminal organizations. The distribution is done off the books and outside the letter of the law.

If you ask any coffeeshop owner about their supply chain, they will say there isn’t one, that their inventory just magically appears behind the counter. Evidently this is not the case, because Dutch media frequently reports about the crackdown on illegal weed plantations. Picture hundreds of perfectly good plants going through the shredder.

Cannabis going in the shredder. An awful sight.

How did it get this far? Back to the beginning…

Around 1968, the opening of the first (unofficial) coffeeshop, Sarasani, in downtown Utrecht was one of a series of catalysts that forced the Dutch government to a decision on how to deal with the growing popularity of recreational cannabis. Because of the deep-seated desire for personal freedom and tolerance within Dutch culture, and the apparent failure of the American alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s, the Dutch government decided it would be wise to at least tolerate the sale and use of cannabis. Even though the use of cannabis was, and still is, officially illegal in the Netherlands.

“To appease the international community the Dutch government decreed that it would ramp up its enforcement policies throughout the early 90’s and 2000’s”

This decision didn’t sit well with major players in the global community, particularly with the Netherland’s major allies like the US, the UK, France and Germany. It was international pressure that made the Dutch government refrain from any further talks of cannabis legalization and paved the way for what we now call a “Gedoogbeleid” or “Policy of Tolerance”. Roughly translated, government officials will turn a blind eye to the consumption of cannabis, as long as you buy and consume small amounts without being a nuisance.

The continuing pressure of international relations created a political climate that furthered the deterioration of the Dutch cannabis policy. To appease the international community, the Dutch government decreed that it would ramp up its enforcement policies throughout the early 90’s and 2000’s. This resulted in a crackdown on the cultivation of cannabis and the forced closure of a huge number of coffeeshops throughout the country.

 

Blaming the tourist

Here the story takes a turn for the worse. Due to the perceived nuisance of ”drug tourism” in the Netherland’s southern border cities, former Dutch Minister of Security, Ivo Opstelten, implemented a law in 2012 that stated that non-Dutch citizens were no longer allowed to purchase cannabis from coffeeshops. On top of that, Dutch citizens were forced to sign-up for a ”Weed-Pass”, by registering as a member of a coffeeshop, which would then receive the status of a ”Cannabis-club”.

Needless to say, the introduction of the Weed-Pass, sparked major protests throughout the Netherlands while the national police reported a large increase in the number of illegal street dealers. Luckily the Weed-Pass policy was short lived. Largely due to the opposition of Amsterdam’s then mayor Eberhard van der Laan and other local officials and the policy was retracted in December of that same year. Unfortunately, at this time there are still southern border towns where it is impossible to purchase cannabis as a non-citizen.

Former minister of Justice, Ivo Opstelten
Former mayor Eberhard van der Laan

To conclude this brief explanation

It is my fervent hope that when you read this article, (preferably while smoking a big fat blunt) you realize that even though the Dutch attitude towards cannabis might seem very liberal it’s far from ideal and leaves much to be desired. This has very little to do with the willingness for legalization but has more to do with international politics. Ironically it’s those same international politics that are now driving the discussion forward and provide a positive voice for change. So keep doing what you’re doing and enjoy our fine coffeeshops.  Just don’t take them for granted.

Post author
Herbert M. Green
Herbert lives and breaths cannabis. And when he’s not breathing it, he’s writing about it. If he’s not doing that, he’s reading about its history or politics. If not reading about cannabis, he’s talking about it, in the hopes he can change the world’s view on cannabis.
See more from Herbert M. Green

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