The Dutch approach to cannabis
In the current situation in the Netherlands, medicinal users of cannabis can obtain their cannabis material from two distinct sources: informally through the street market and formally through the pharmacy. To understand the choices that medicinal users in the Netherlands have to make in order to decide between these two sources, it is important to have some understanding about the Dutch drug policy.
The basic principles of the Dutch drug policy were largely formulated in the mid-seventies. This policy does not moralize, but is based on the assumption that drug use is an undeniable fact and must be dealt with as practically as possible. The most important objective of this drug policy is therefore to prevent or to limit the risks and the harm associated with drug use, both to the user himself and to society. As a result of this, the Ministry of Health is responsible for coordinating drug policy, as opposed to the Ministry of Justice.
The Opium Act
The cornerstone of this policy is the law known as the , which is based on two key principles. Firstly, it distinguishes between different types of drugs on the basis of their harmfulness (cannabis products on the one hand, and drugs that represent an “unacceptable” risk on the other). The terms ‘soft-drugs’ and ‘hard-drugs’ refer to this distinction. Secondly, the law differentiates on the basis of the nature of the offence, such as the distinction between possession of small quantities of drugs intended for personal use, and possession intended for sale. Possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis is a minor offence, while possession of a larger quantity is a criminal offence. Drug use itself is not an offence. This approach offers the scope to pursue a balanced policy through the selective application of criminal law.
Dealing in small quantities of cannabis, through the outlets known as “coffeeshops”, is tolerated (condoned) under strict conditions. There are currently about 700 such coffeeshops in the Netherlands, with the majority located in the bigger cities, notably Amsterdam. Tolerance is a typically Dutch policy instrument which is based on the power of the Public Prosecutor to refrain from prosecuting offences. This principle is formulated in the law and is called the “expediency principle”.
The idea behind the Netherlands’ policy towards the coffee shops is harm reduction. This is based on the argument that if small-scale cannabis dealing and use is not prosecuted under certain conditions, the users – who are mainly young people experimenting with the drug – are not criminalized (they do not get a criminal record) and they are not forced to move in criminal circles, where the risk that they will be pressed to try more dangerous drugs such as heroin is much greater.