The Netherlands is often seen as a haven for cannabis use. However, despite the notorious coffeeshops in Amsterdam, cannabis is technically illegal in the country, though its use is tolerated. Officials are looking to reform their approach and may soon start creating a government-controlled recreational market.
Cannabis laws in the Netherlands
Can you possess and use cannabis in the Netherlands?
The Netherlands government categorises drugs into two lists:
- List 1: ‘Hard’ drugs regarded as harmful to health, such as heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and GHB.
- List 2: ‘Soft’ drugs that pose less risk, such as tranquilisers and cannabis.
All drug laws are based on the 1928 Opium Act, which says that possession of any drugs (list 1 or 2) is illegal. However, the Opium Act Directive also states that certain outlets where cannabis use occurs (known as coffeeshops), will be tolerated by the local authorities. This is called ‘gedoogbeleid’ – an official tolerance policy. So, contrary to popular belief, cannabis is decriminalized rather than legalized. In March 2017, there were 567 coffeeshops in the Netherlands.
At times, the law does come into action for use of cannabis. For example, if it is seen as a threat to the health of young people, then you could be prosecuted (for example, smoking it near a school or on public transport). Whether you’re prosecuted or not is the decision of the local authorities, not the government.
Technically, you could also be sent to prison for possessing even small quantities. The threshold for what constitutes a ‘small amount’ is five grams. If you possess over this amount, you could be subject to a fine (€75) if you’re a first-time offender, or a prison sentence if you’re caught with a larger amount.
If caught with below five grams of cannabis, it will probably be confiscated, and you won’t be prosecuted or fined.
Can you smoke cannabis on the streets in Amsterdam?
Use of cannabis in public is not permitted. However, tracking down the possession and use of small amounts is not a priority and is not actively pursued by the police. Particularly in central Amsterdam, the police will often only issue a warning to someone who is using cannabis without causing a nuisance.
Can you sell cannabis in the Netherlands?
Selling cannabis is illegal in the Netherlands, and you’re far more likely to be convicted if you’re caught supplying it to others. The Placement in an Institution for Prolific Offenders Law was introduced in 2004 to assist persistent offenders. It consists of both imprisonment and treatment, mostly carried out in institutions outside the prison.
However, the law becomes more complex regarding coffeeshop sellers. There are ‘tolerance criteria’ in place for shop-owners to adhere to, which include:
- Not selling more than five grams of cannabis per day, per person
- Not selling cannabis to minors
- Not permitting minors to enter the shop
- Not selling alcohol
- Not having a trade stock of over 500 grams
- No access or sales for people who live outside the Netherlands
Providing coffeeshop owners keep to these guidelines, the sale of cannabis in their premises will be tolerated by local authorities. The police enforce some laws more than others. For example, selling to minors is strongly policed. Selling to foreigners usually is not, as this would put most coffeeshops out of business.
Can you grow cannabis in the Netherlands?
Once again, cannabis cultivation is officially illegal, though growing a few plants at home for personal use is decriminalized. If you’re caught with five cannabis plants or less, the authorities will probably confiscate them without prosecuting you.
The “personal use” aspect here is crucial. It should be clear that the grower does not intend to sell the cannabis. If authorities detect at least 2 signs that it might be a commercial grow operation, they might prosecute. These signs can be artificial lights, ventilation, timers, etc.
Being caught with a higher number of plants is taken more seriously, and you could be sentenced to communal service or several years of imprisonment. The sentence might be increased for those acting as part of a criminal organisation, if the plants were a fire-hazard, or if the plantation was booby-trapped.
There have been some notable court cases regarding cannabis cultivation. An interesting case study is that of two farmers, who were arrested in 2014. The court ruled that although they had violated the law by growing 2,500 cannabis plants, they would not be punished.
To justify the decision, the judge pointed out that the two farmers grew the cannabis plants in a safe and responsible manner, in accordance with the Dutch policy of tolerance. This was a landmark case, signifying a shift in attitude towards cannabis cultivation in the country.
Is CBD legal in the Netherlands?
CBD production is illegal in the Netherlands, but it is legal for personal use. Its legal status stems from old legislation, which was more concerned with the production of hash oil than CBD.
The Netherlands’ Opium Act was amended in 1999, legalising hemp for industrial production. This meant that it was legal to grow hemp plants with a THC content of under 0.2%, but not to produce CBD, as it was an extraction of the plant.
However, there is a loophole in the law. If the hemp is grown in the Netherlands, then processed into CBD abroad, it can be legally sold in the Netherlands again. Contrary to popular opinion, it must have a THC level of less than 0.05%, not 0.2%.
Can cannabis seeds be sent to the Netherlands?
It’s legal to sell and buy cannabis seeds in the Netherlands. They can also be legally mailed into the country via the post.
Medicinal cannabis in the Netherlands
The Netherlands was one of the first countries in the world to legalise cannabis for medicinal purposes.
Attitudes started changing in 1993, when the Netherlands became the first EU country to introduce a forerunner to its current medicinal cannabis programme. Then in 1999, when Els Borst (then Health Minister) advocated its use, the government started to develop something more concrete. Two years after, the country began producing and prescribing cannabis to patients. The Office of Medicinal Cannabis was also formed at this point.
In 2003, the government gave licences to two companies, permitting them to produce cannabis products for medical use. One of these products, Bedrocan, is among the most widely used cannabis medication in the world. All production is highly regulated and monitored by the Office of Medical Cannabis.
Now, the government is keen to introduce a further government licence, letting other companies cultivate cannabis for medical and scientific purposes.
Yes we Bedrocan!
Demand for Bedrocan has been rising steadily over the years. It tripled production when it opened a further facility in 2015. During that time, Bedrocan developed five different cannabis strains, each to cater for different medical needs. One of their strains uses the Jack Herer genetics, a strain created by Sensi Seeds.
Given that other countries have only recently made medicinal cannabis legal, the pressure is on for Bedrocan. Keeping up with demand is a difficult process, especially with supply bottlenecks in some EU countries.
Industrial hemp in the Netherlands
Industrial hemp has been legally grown in the Netherlands since 1993. The first hemp plantation was in Nagele (in the Noordoostpolder), then a year later, production moved to the Veenkolonien, in the north-east of the country. The HempFlax Group was founded by Ben Dronkers (who’s also the founder of Sensi Seeds) with the aim to create a proper hemp industry. It established itself in Oude Pekela and has grown to become one of the world’s most notable suppliers.
In the beginning, industrial hemp production was modest, with a notable dip in 2004 and 2006, due to some contracts between farmers and processors being terminated. However, the industry has grown significantly since its inception, and there are now thousands of hectares devoted to hemp cultivation.
Politics and cannabis
The Netherlands is regarded as being one of the most permissive nations in the world when it comes to cannabis laws. However, while the government has traditionally tolerated its use (especially in coffeeshops), it has adopted an increasingly stricter stance in recent years.
For example, in 2015, the government ordered the closure of nearly 6,000 cannabis plantations. Then in 2017, the Liberal Party (led by Mark Rutte, Prime Minister), didn’t support the proposals to regulate cannabis production in the country; although their coalition partner, Labour, did.
More recently, various political parties have sought to reform the current cannabis laws, which are currently confusing. The D66 party put forward a bill to allow the government to regulate cannabis supply to coffeeshops. Solving problems with the ‘back door’ would reduce dependency on the black market.
As a result, the government is now planning to administer cultivation licences to small-scale cannabis producers, who will then supply to the coffeeshops.
Problems of the so-called ‘back door’
In the Netherlands, the sale of small amounts of cannabis is tolerated, but the purchase of cannabis by coffeeshops is illegal. So, coffeeshops can sell through the ‘front door’, but they can’t purchase the supply through the ‘back door’. This has created a legal impasse, and has several downsides: It encourages organized crime, and hinders quality assurance of the product.
Regulated production takes the wind out of the sails of criminal cannabis growers, makes it possible to verify the quality of the cannabis, and will generate extra tax income. A similar model is used in Uruguay and (more or less) in the American state of Colorado.
Good to know
If you are travelling to the Netherlands (or are a resident of the country), it is useful to know the following:
- In 2018, Dries van Agt, the former Prime minister responsible for introducing the policy of cannabis tolerance, received the Koos Zwart Award for his progressive approach. This award recognises activists who have made an outstanding contribution to normalising and legalising cannabis.
- 15.7% of young adults (15 to 34 years) use cannabis in the Netherlands.
- Contrary to popular belief, the Netherlands isn’t the country that uses the most cannabis. It’s currently ranked 20th in the world.
Cannabis was smoked widely in the Netherlands in the 17th century. This is proven in a painting by Flemish artist Adriaen Brouwer, which shows a man with an ale tankard in one hand and a pipe in the other. In these times, those who smoked cannabis were called ‘toeback-drinckers’. They usually mixed their cannabis with tobacco, then smoked it in a Gouda stone pipe.
Cannabis consumption remained extensive until the action was taken against the ‘toeback-drinckers’. Pope Urbanus VII banned it, threatening those that flouted the ruling with excommunication. The authorities even threatened corporal punishment, in the form of cutting off offender’s noses or hanging them.
Despite this threat, there were plenty who believed in the beneficial value of cannabis. Some scholars even proclaimed that it was good for the body and mind.
What are the coffeeshops?
Coffeeshops are cafes in the Netherlands that are ‘permitted’ to sell cannabis to their customers. Although the sale is tolerated, it isn’t, strictly speaking, legal. Only small quantities of cannabis can be sold (five grams per customer) and no more than 500 grams of stock must be kept at any one time.
All sorts of people visit coffeeshops in the Netherlands. Although it’s regarded by many across the world as a ‘young person’s’ hobby, plenty of older people enjoy smoking cannabis in coffeeshops too.
Due to a law passed in 2012 (which isn’t widely enforced in Amsterdam), non-residents are not permitted to enter. The coffeeshops are for the exclusive use of residents only.
Check out the 2 videos below, created by Sensi Seeds, interviewing Dutch coffeeshop clients:
What is a Growshop?
There have been growshops in the Netherlands since the 1980s. These stores sell everything required to cultivate cannabis under artificial lighting. Most of the customers purchase these items legally, in order to illegally grow cannabis in their own homes.
The trend for growshops soon spread. In the 1990s, similar establishments appeared in Germany and Switzerland. By the millennium, there were growshops around the world, in locations like the USA and South America.
The unwritten rule has always been that the shops can stay in business, providing they don’t sell cannabis. Until recently, the Dutch growshops were permitted to sell seeds, but this has since been made illegal.
In 2015, the future of the Dutch growshop was put under threat, due to the introduction of the Growshop Act.
The new law stated that, while the shops could continue to sell the equipment, they could only operate as a kind of ‘florist’. If the shop-owner knows that one of their customers is involved in illegally cultivating cannabis, they could be found guilty of ‘aiding and abetting’.
The Dutch police have been acting on the law, and regularly sell seized equipment at auctions.
However, Minister of Security and Justice Ivo Opstelten (who implemented the law) has since resigned. Growshop-owners across the country now hope that the restrictive law may be reversed.
The weed pass – failed experiment?
In 2010, Ivo Opstelten proposed plans to introduce the ‘weed pass’ in the border regions of the Netherlands. The weed pass law turned coffeeshops into “members only” clubs, open solely to Dutch residents. Members would only be able to get into the coffeeshops by registering for a “weed pass” and the shops would only be allowed a maximum of 2,000 members. This was designed to reduce drug tourism and the issues associated with it.
Coffeeshop owners brought a case to the European Court, protesting the decision. However, their case was overruled.
The weed pass came into effect on 2012, in the southern cities such as Maastricht. However, the impact was largely negative. Tourists, driven out of coffeeshops, simply took their trade to criminal street dealers. This further funded the black market and actually increased drug-related incidents.
In 2013, the government was ordered to compensate the coffeeshop owners, who claimed they’d lost money as a direct consequence of the weed pass. The Hague district court ruled that local customers had been deterred by it, as well as tourists.
The weed pass is still in action today. Only Dutch residents may use the coffeeshops; apart from in Amsterdam, which is exempt, provided that coffeeshops must be at least 250m away from a school. Because of that, about 175 coffeeshops remain in Amsterdam, half the amount of coffeeshops in the 90’s.
The 250m school distance is somewhat counterintuitive, since coffeeshops are already strictly forbidden to allow persons under 18 in their shops. Owners strictly observe this. Some have even voluntarily raised the age of admission to 21, to avoid their license being revoked and the coffeeshop being permanently closed.
Laws in the future
The Netherlands already adopts a tolerant approach to cannabis use; though many admit that the laws are confusing. As such, it seems likely that future governments may address the contradictions and create a clearer set of laws for citizens to adhere to.
- Disclaimer:While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article, it is not intended to provide legal advice, as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.