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The Netherlands' Past Offers Lessons for Future

New Report Finds Separating Markets in Marijuana and Hard Drugs Limited Exposure to Heroin and Crack and Led to Lowest Number of Problem Drug Users in European Union

LONDON, July 17, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- A new report published by the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program reveals the benefits of the Netherlands' alternative approach to drugs.

"Coffee Shops and Compromise: Separated Illicit Drug Markets in the Netherlands," tells the history of the Dutch approach as well as describes the ongoing success of the country's drug policy. This includes the separation of the more prevalent marijuana market from hard drug dealers. In the Netherlands, only 14 percent of cannabis users say they can get other drugs from their sources for cannabis. By contrast in Sweden, for example, 52 percent of cannabis users report that other drugs are available from cannabis dealers.

Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, Director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program said, "Governments are looking to reform their drug policies in order to maximize resources, promote health and security while protecting people from damaging and unwarranted arrests. The Netherlands has been a leader in this respect. As other countries and local jurisdictions consider reforming their laws, it's possible that the Netherlands' past offers a guide for the future."

Though famous for its coffee shops, where cannabis can be purchased and consumed, the Netherlands also pioneered needle exchange and safer consumption rooms, decriminalized possession of small quantities of drugs and introduced easy-to-access treatment services. These policies, coupled with groundbreaking harm reduction interventions, have resulted in low prevalence of HIV among people who inject drugs, which has virtually disappeared in the country, as well as the lowest rate of problem drug use in Europe. Moreover, Dutch citizens have been spared the burden of criminal records for low-level, non-violent offenses.

While the Dutch approach has celebrated many notable successes, the policy has faced unanticipated problems, such as marijuana tourism, after the government opened national borders between EU member states, and, the so-called "back door problem" of marijuana supply. Dutch legislation allowed consumers to purchase their cannabis in a safe and regulated environment but did not regulate the entire supply chain.

This problem, however, may be resolved in the near future.

"Several Dutch Mayors have plans for municipal cannabis farms to supply the coffee shops and take crime out of the industry," said Dr. Jean-Paul Grund, Research Director at the Addiction Research Centre (CVO) in Utrecht and co-author of the report. "But if Dutch drug policy offers one lesson to foreign policymakers, it is that change should be comprehensive, regulating sale to consumers, wholesale supply and cultivation."

In other parts of the world, drug policy and marijuana laws are evolving rapidly. According to a recent poll, the majority of Americans (52 percent) now support legalizing marijuana. Last November, voters in two U.S. states approved the personal use of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use and the Uruguayan government has proposed a tightly regulated cannabis market. More initiatives are expected soon.  

In addition, at the request of several Latin American heads of state, the international community is due to debate the existing international drug control regime. The United Nations General Assembly will convene a special session on drugs in 2016.

Dutch Drug Policy Since 1976

  • In 1976, there was a revision to the Opium Act that categorized illicit drugs according to those with "unacceptable" risk ("hard drugs") and those with "acceptable" risk (soft drugs or cannabis) to the health of the user.
  • There are currently around 700 coffee shops in The Netherlands.
  • Coffee shops are estimated generate around €400 million ($512 million USD) in revenue. Further regulation of cannabis production and supply would reduce the pressures on law enforcement and lead to significant cost reductions—up to €160 million ($205 million USD)—and generate up to €260 million ($333 million USD) in tax revenues.
  • Revenues, however, were never the primary motivation for the Netherlands' drug policy but rather public health and social inclusion. Thus, according to most recent available estimates (2003), the Netherlands made significant investments in harm reduction (€220 million or $282 million USD) prevention (€42 million or $53 million USD) and treatment (€278 million or $356 million USD).

Lower Arrest Rates than Many Neighboring Countries

A critical objective of the legislative changes was to avoid stigmatizing people who use cannabis or damage their prospects of employment and social participation with criminal records. It was believed that arrests and prosecutions for minor drug offences would be counterproductive and damaging. As a result, the Netherlands has a much lower arrest rate than many other countries.

Arrest rates for cannabis possession per 100,000 population (2005)


Per 100,000 population

Per 1000 Users







United States









United Kingdom






From the Beckley Foundation: Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate, 2008

Marijuana use in the Netherlands: Stricter Isn't Better

Lifetime marijuana use by age and country since 2000 -- All adults (aged 15–64)[i]

  • European Average: 23.7 percent
  • Netherlands: 25.7 percent
  • UK: 30.2 percent
  • US[ii]: 41.9 percent (Ages 12-and-older)  

Protecting Marijuana Users from Exposure to Harder Drugs

A risk considered by Dutch policymakers was that people buying illicit marijuana would potentially be in contact with those selling harder drugs. For example the following comparison[iii] contrasts the percentage of cannabis users who report that other drugs are available at the location where they usually buy cannabis.

  • Sweden: 52 percent
  • Czech Republic: 26 percent
  • Netherlands: 14 percent


European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, The State of the Drug Problem in Europe: Annual Report 2012, (2012); See also: EMCDDA, General Population Surveys, 'Lifetime prevalence of drug use by age and country, most recent national general population survey available since 2000': http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/stats12#display:/stats12/gpstab1b.


National Institute on Drug Abuse, Drugs of Abuse: Marijuana: http://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/marijuana.


European Commission- Directorate-General for Justice, Further insights into aspects of the EU illicit drugs market: summaries and key findings, 2013

SOURCE Open Society Foundations

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